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The 2020 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season started off just as many others in the past. The season-opener at Daytona International Speedway was the typical wreckfest with a thrilling finish that saw Grant Enfinger edge Jordan Anderson by just inches.
The series went to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and then headed off toward Atlanta Motor Speedway while news news of COVID-19 spreading throughout the United States loomed. With teams already on site, NASCAR made the call to suspend the season indefinitely in the wake of so many unknowns about the new virus. But that was only the beginning of this year’s surprises.
Fresh off of winning the 2019 championship with Matt Crafton, despite the No. 88 team being locked out of victory lane, ThorSport Racing jumped right out of the gate with a trip to victory lane for Enfinger, leading many to believe the organization would be among those to beat this season. And while Enfinger has won twice this year and Crafton just found his way back to victory lane for the first time since 2017, Johnny Sauter hasn’t exactly had the kind of season you’d want to brag about.
Sauter’s positive results dropped substantially when he returned to ThorSport, and that’s understandable – especially with how last-minute the return was. After all, it was announced in January 2019 that he wouldn’t be returning to GMS Racing for a fourth season. But with a year under their belts, many came into 2020 expecting Sauter to be one of those running inside the top 10 and contending for wins for a good chunk of the time.
It’s not that season has been that bad for Sauter. He opened the year with a seventh at Daytona and followed that up with a second and a seventh at Las Vegas and Charlotte in the series’ return to the track. But a disqualification at Atlanta Motor Speedway for improper tire modifications started the downhill slide. A third-place run erased by the disqualification meant just five points for Sauter coming out of Atlanta, dropping him from second to eighth in the standings.
Since that Atlanta race, Sauter has posted three top 10s, a 13th and a pair of 33rd-place finishes through no fault of his own. That, combined with the success of those around him in the standings, has put him in a precarious position with just six races remaining to set the championship hopefuls.
He now sits 12th in points but 43 behind 10th-place driver Todd Gilliland. It’s far from an insurmountable deficit, but if the No. 13 team can’t start putting back-to-back top 10s together soon, Sauter will be an a must-win situation in the very near future if he wants a chance to try to race for the championship.
Speaking of difficult seasons, another driver who stands out as one no one really expected to struggle is Stewart Friesen. In 2017 when Halmar-Friesen took a few weeks off to align with GMS Racing and came back stronger than ever, it didn’t take long to see Friesen as a legitimate championship contender, and he was just that last year. Making the Championship 4 by way of a victory in Phoenix, an 11th-place run at Homestead-Miami Speedway wasn’t enough to win the championship.
Fast forward to this season, a new partnership with Kyle Busch Motorsports and a manufacturer change to Toyota brought with it a different type of hope. After all, it’s hard to deny the success KBM has seen since it debuted in 2010. Instead, it’s been a season of growing pains and struggles that have brought just four top 10s and seen Friesen drop as low as 17th in the championship standings.
He currently sits 14th and more than 70 points below the cut line. He’s in more of a must-win situation than Sauter is, but it’s still mathematically possible to point his way into the playoffs.
On the other side of the spectrum, it’s hard to ignore Austin Hill and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ success so far this season. Heading into the 2019 season, many criticized HRE for dropping Brett Moffitt, who brought the organization the 2018 championship, in favor of putting Hill behind the wheel of the No. 16 team. Those that didn’t see the improvement Hill had brought to the No. 02 Young’s Motorsports team just didn’t understand why HRE would make the decision to bring him on.
That year, he silenced a good majority of his critics when he started off with a victory at Daytona and followed it up with four more wins, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Six DNFs throughout the season for a variety of reasons put Hill on the outside looking in when the Championship 4 was set last year. But four wins, seven top fives and 13 top 10s was a substantial improvement to the one top five and six top 10s he’d scored during the 2018 season.
Despite missing their shot at winning back-to-back championships, HRE stayed with Hill for 2020, and I’m sure everyone at the organization is glad they did. Though it took Hill until last weekend at Kansas Speedway to find victory lane, he’s posted nine top 10s in 10 races this season, and his only finish outside the top 10 came at Texas Motor Speedway when he suffered motor problems.
While the combination of Hill and HRE should be expected to run well, I certainly don’t think anyone expected them to run that well this year. In fact, after a sixth-place run at Daytona to open the season, Hill found himself second in points. However, a third-place finish at Las Vegas the following week moved him into the lead where he’s stayed every week since. At this point, if Hill is not one of the Championship 4, that may turn into one of the biggest surprises of the whole season.
Hill is far from the only driver running well, though. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how this year’s rookie class has fared without the benefit of practice and qualifying. Entering a new series is enough of a learning curve in itself, but to have to run each race without the benefit of time on the track to familiarize themselves with the lines they should run, the best ways to enter and exit the turns, pit road practice and the ability to adjust the truck setup to their liking is nothing short of impressive. And that three of those rookies sit inside the top 10 in the standings (Christian Eckes and Zane Smith – tied for third; Derek Kraus – ninth) says a lot all on its own.
Drivers aren’t the only surprises this season, though. Jeff Hammond, however quietly, made his return to sitting atop the pit box. Signing on to crew chief for Clay Greenfield for the entirety of the 2020 season, the No. 68 team failed to qualify for the season-opener at Daytona and skipped the second race of the season in Las Vegas. A best finish of 20th hasn’t exactly put Greenfield on the radar this season, but the return of such an experienced crew chief can definitely be celebrated.
Of course, I’d be sorely mistaken if I didn’t include the ever-changing schedule to this year’s surprises. Thanks to the COVID-19 hiatus and the differing restrictions for states across the country, NASCAR has had to find some unconventional ways to keep the schedule rolling, including a double-header at Kansas Speedway last week and even the addition of the Daytona road course. And that doesn’t even include the pit road changes NASCAR just announced this week for World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
While maybe more bizarre than surprising, Kevin Harvick managed to start a firestorm earlier this season after Kyle Larson implied Kyle Busch was cherry-picking his wins. The Twitter comment saw Harvick pony up $50,000 for any full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver who could beat Busch in a Truck Series race, something that Marcus Lemonis matched. It turned out to be Chase Elliott who took the challenge and won at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the series first race back on track.
We’re only 10 races into a 23-race schedule, assuming the Truck Series is able to run the entirety of its schedule, so there are bound to be more surprises on the horizon. But that’s the beauty of this series. Even if the racing suffers a little, like it tends to at Pocono Raceway nearly every year, there are definitely other things to pay attention to that will hold your interest throughout the remainder of 2020.