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Truckin’ Thursdays: Meet the 2020 Championship Contenders

Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks

The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series kicks off its seven-race playoffs Thursday night (Sept. 17) at Bristol Motor Speedway. With an expanded field this year, now 10 drivers will fight for a chance to race for the championship at Phoenix Raceway in November, up from eight competitors last year.

1. Sheldon Creed

Starts: 16
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 5
Top 10s: 8
Playoff Points: 26

Carrying the most playoff points into the next six races, Creed has the best opportunity to point his way into the Championship 4 simply because he’ll enter each round with an advantage over his competition. Of course, with that said, there’s something different about the No. 2 team this season.

Maybe the lack of practice and qualifying is good for the Creed/Jeff Stankiewicz (crew chief) combination. Maybe it’s that the driver has matured a bit since his rookie season, and combining that with his prior experience at the majority of the tracks the series visits has worked out well for Creed so far.

This season has given off the vibe that the road to the championship rolls straight through GMS Racing, and Creed is just one of four drivers the organization put in the playoffs. Even a few of the drivers have pegged Creed as one their biggest threats to winning the championship, and as long as Creed can keep his bad days from being really bad, he’ll definitely be a part of the Championship 4.

2. Zane Smith

Starts: 16
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 9
Playoff Points: 22

Simply put, this rookie has been highly impressive this season. Driving for GMS Racing, he already has two wins and five stage wins, a number matched by his GMS teammates Creed and Brett Moffitt. The key for Smith throughout the playoffs will definitely be his lack of experience. As long as he can stay out of trouble at Bristol this weekend, he should be a near-lock for the Round of 8. He’ll need to elevate his race performance to make the Championship 4.

3. Austin Hill

Starts: 16
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 14
Playoff Points: 22

In his second year with Hattori Racing Enterprises, Austin Hill is arguably the most consistent finisher each and every week, as shown by 14 top 10s in 16 races so far this season. What’s going to really hurt the No. 16 team is those stage wins, or the lack thereof. With just two stage wins and a single victory this season, the consistency has paid off for Hill in winning the regular season championship, something that came with a 15 playoff point bonus.

Last season, Matt Crafton won the title without a single race win just on consistency alone, and Hill can easily do the same with a single victory to his name. Don’t be surprised to see Hill make the Championship 4 to fight for the title at Phoenix.

4. Grant Enfinger

Starts: 16
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 9
Playoff Points: 19

This one is a bit of a mystery to me. ThorSport Racing put three of its four teams into the playoffs this season, and Enfinger is likely the least impressive of the bunch. Sure he’s got three wins and he’s shown some speed here and there, but I’m not convinced this team is set up to race for a championship just yet.

With that said, it’s hard to count the team out too. After all, a win to open the year at Daytona International Speedway means the No. 98 team has been free to experiment with different setups as it prepared for the playoffs. I’m not saying that’s been the case with Enfinger, but it definitely could be. Because what means more? Race wins or the championship?

5. Brett Moffitt

Starts: 16
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Playoff Points: 15

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m a bit surprised that Brett Moffit hasn’t found his way to victory lane yet this season. It’s not for a lack of speed or performance, though. Moffitt has led laps and been right in the mix for the win on multiple occasions but just can’t seem to close the deal yet this year.

He does have five stage wins so far this season, and that will do nothing but help the No. 23 team as it rolls through the playoffs. But if Moffitt does make the Championship 4, being just good enough to win stages isn’t going to be enough to win the title too.

6. Ben Rhodes

Starts: 16
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Playoff Points: 14

With just a single victory and one stage win throughout the entire regular season, Ben Rhodes and the No. 99 team will need to find its way to the front of the field more frequently throughout the playoffs if there’s any hope of making the Championship 4. While he doesn’t have nearly the playoff points the top 4 currently have, utilizing stage points by putting Rhodes into the top 10 consistently throughout the race can help this team show it’s a threat to win the championship.

7. Matt Crafton

Starts: 16
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 9
Playoff Points: 9

It’s been a less than thrilling season for Matt Crafton and crew chief Junior Joiner, but a trip to victory lane tends to cure most of the problems in any situation. This duo knows how to win a championship as they’ve done it together three times before, including last season without a trip to victory lane. The key for this team is to find its consistency once again before it’s too late, especially since Crafton sits just six points ahead of ninth-place Todd Gilliland, who’s currently on the outside looking in at the Round of 8.

8. Christian Eckes

Starts: 16
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 5
Top 10s: 7
Playoff Points: 5

Christian Eckes has been largely overshadowed through a large portion of this season by fellow rookie Zane Smith. It’s not for a lack of trying on Eckes’ part, though. He’s put himself in position at the front of the field multiple times this season but has yet to be able to close the deal, either through his own mistakes or those of others around him.

With Rudy Fugle atop the pit box and Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment beneath him, Eckes is definitely capable of winning. He just needs to have the patience to allow those wins to come to him instead of continuing to try to force the issue to the point where he makes a mistake.

9. Todd Gilliland

Starts: 16
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 9
Playoff Points: 3

The 2020 season has been a bit of regrouping season for Todd Gilliland after a couple of rough years at Kyle Busch Motorsports. The third-year driver spent much of 2018 and 2019 with a huge weight on his shoulders as, week after week, he failed to perform to the level that KBM equipment is capable of. But as Gilliland has gotten more races under his belt, you can almost feel more confidence coming from him, and that can be a dangerous combination when it comes to stepping up his aggression and performance in a short timeframe.

10. Tyler Ankrum

Starts: 16
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 7
Playoff Points: 2

Last season’s Rookie of the Year has needed much of this season to find his footing after joining GMS during the offseason. With no victories or stage wins, Tyler Ankrum certainly has his work cut out for him during these playoffs. But what’s worth noting is that in recent weeks, his performance has been on the upswing and definitely headed the right direction. If this team can find its rhythm quickly over the next three races, they’ll be able to remain alive for the Round of 8.

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About Beth Lunkenheimer

Beth Lunkenheimer
Content Director Beth heads up management of our 30-person staff, acting as Tom’s main assistant with technology and personnel while working as Frontstretch’s Truck Series expert. The author of Truckin’ Thursdays and the coordinator of the site’s pre and post-race coverage, she also runs a periodic charity column that spotlights when NASCAR gives back. A childhood transplant to Texas, Beth is a 15-year writing veteran who has contributed content to BRANDT and Athlon Sports, among other outlets.

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