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Less than three months ago, Tyler Ankrum was starting-and-parking for NEMCO Motorsports. The up-and-coming teenager was hoping to keep his NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series playoff hopes alive simply by showing up to the racetrack.
Who knew how well those efforts would pay off for the series’ most unlikely postseason participant? After Friday night’s (Sept. 13) World of Westgate 200 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he earned a slot into the Round of 6 by a mere two points.
“Very, very happy with my DGR-Crosley truck,” Ankrum told Frontstretch post-race. “Overall, there are things we need to clean up. But honestly, I don’t really care at this moment. I’m just happy we’re in.”
Despite all the issues, he made it!
— DGR-Crosley (@DGR_Crosley) September 14, 2019
In a race highlighted by ThorSport Racing’s engine woes, Ankrum thought he was experiencing some of his own as the race wound down. His truck sputtered on a restart, briefly losing power but it was able to hold together until the checkered flag flew. An 11th-place finish was just enough to edge Johnny Sauter for the sixth and final spot.
“I was worried because it really looked like everyone was kind of losing something, whether it be tires or motors,” he said. “The No. 52 (Stewart Friesen) lost his cylinders and he wasn’t even a ThorSport truck. I was really worried when those trucks blew up and then (Friesen) went. I don’t know what it is about this place being so hard on motors. Ilmor is usually really good about it. I’m sure they’re working hard at it and they’ll figure it out.”
Ankrum came into Las Vegas as the eighth and final playoff driver but was confident coming to Sin City. His win earlier this season at Kentucky Speedway was on a similar layout to LVMS.
Throughout the last green flag fun, Ankrum fell back slowly due to the aforementioned issues (later deemed electrical). The whole time, despite the nerves he wasn’t aware in the cockpit how close the points battle was.
“I honestly didn’t know,” he said. “I knew at the end of stage two, (Kevin) Bono (Manion, crew chief) said all we have to do is finish, I didn’t know where. So I said somewhere inside the top 10 to be safe. I’m glad we did that. I think we got lucky with how strung out the field got and how our motor issues happened when they happened.”
The 17 ADVANCES!
— NASCAR Gander Trucks (@NASCAR_Trucks) September 14, 2019
“I didn’t want to know because I think I would’ve started making mistakes at that point in time, but (I’m) just over the moon right now.”
Ankrum’s season is the definition of unconventional. Not only did he miss the first three races (age restriction) along with starting-and-parking for two, but he’s coming to most tracks for the first time ever. He’s a rookie in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series with a new team in DGR-Crosley.
“I haven’t expected it to happen the way it has,” he said. “I think it’s made a really great story for NASCAR and for ourselves. Coming into this weekend, I honestly thought in a way we kind of won. The underdogs, we overachieved, we already did more than anybody thought our team was going to do. I think that goes to show the amount of people I have around me, supporting me, working on my trucks, my DGR-Crosley guys worked their guts out the past 2-3 weeks to get this truck ready. I’m really proud of them and to say I can race with the No. 17 team.”
It’s a far cry to go from a start-and-park driver to challenging for the season title. When asked if he realistically thought a Round of 6 berth was possible as he was sitting in the garage, sidelined less than 20 laps into midsummer races at Iowa and Gateway, Ankrum was realistic.
“I didn’t,” he said. “Honestly, I thought my season was over at that point in time. I didn’t think we were going to even get a little bit of the sponsorship needed to finish the rest of the year out. I mean, I know even after I got back in the No. 17 truck, people were questioning, ‘Are you going to be in the next one? What about the next one?’ And people just quit asking. I’m glad they did. We’re here and I think we can make it to Homestead.”
With another month until Talladega Superspeedway to kick off the Round of 6, Ankrum and company will have plenty of time to discuss a game plan for the next three races to get to the final one.
After all, he won a championship last year, also as a rookie in the K&N Pro Series East.
“I think we can do it,” he said. “People don’t know or remember I was actually a K&N champion. Most of them think I ran ARCA or something, but I have no experience (at Talladega). I raced Martinsville and Phoenix. I’m really banking on those two races, banking on having a really good day at Talladega. That’s where you can lose the most, I think.
“Heading into those two races, I think we’ll be fine. And it’s a matter of heading to Homestead with the least amount of mistakes. I think we can do it.”