RPW Column: Ten-Men; One Champion: Previewing The ’21 NASCAR Truck Series Playoffs
Column By: MARTY CZEKALA / RPW – MADISON, IL – Friday night, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series begins the sixth edition of their Playoff postseason.
From John Hunter Nemechek to Stewart Friesen, ten drivers will battle it out over the next seven races starting at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway all the way to the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Every three races, drivers will be eliminated from the postseason, with two gone at Bristol on September 16th and four away at Martinsville on October 30th. The championship race is on November 5th, where the first of the Championship 4 to the line wins the title.
Let’s take a look at each of those ten drivers.
88 Matt Crafton
Playoff Points: 4
Season: No wins, 2 top fives, 7 top tens
While it has been over a year since Matt Crafton last won a race, being winless this season doesn’t phase him at all.
The last time Crafton was in the Championship 4 was in 2019. Entering the title race, he had no wins. Taking the checkered flag in Miami, Crafton was the highest of the championship drivers to win and did not finish first.
“It felt good to be counted out to be totally honest and go and do what he did,” Crafton said on Media Day Tuesday. “I definitely wouldn’t count us out again this year. Junior (Carl Joiner, crew chief) and every one of these guys are working hard and you never count the 88 group out.”
Without question, Crafton is taking all nine of his opponents seriously.
“I don’t take any of them lightly, to be totally honest,” Crafton said. “You can’t count anyone out. All of these guys got here for a reason, for being consistent and being good.”
Crafton, though, has a chance to make a little history. A championship would be Crafton’s fourth and would tie Ron Hornaday for the most Truck championships.
“I’ve always looked up to Ron. He’s a great, great racecar driver, one of the greatest to ever race in the Truck Series full-time. It would be very cool, no doubt, but we definitely have some work to do,” Crafton told RPW.
Hornaday did say he may show up if Crafton makes it to the Championship 4.
“Last week, we had a beer together, and he said if I make the final four, he might just show up and be there and come on stage and have a shot. He was there when I won three, and Joiner and I held up threes, and Hornaday stood next to us with his four and said, ‘Still one more to go, boys. Four, you could get there,'” Crafton explained.
99 Ben Rhodes
Playoff Points: 19
Season: 2 wins, 5 top fives, 11 top tens
When ThorSport announced they were returning to Toyota, this was expected to be big, considering the first two championships Matt Crafton won were with TRD.
Ben Rhodes proved to start things off strong, winning the first two races of the season, both at Daytona. Since then, though, he has come close at Bristol, Darlington, and Charlotte. Darling would be the notable one as he led 34 laps in the race and finished runner-up to Sheldon Creed.
Rhodes isn’t worried about it.
“I think we will be fine. Ships not really sinking. We are going to just keep on floating on. Season resetting here, we are just going to kind of calm down and king of rebuild some momentum and not really focus on anything crazy. The biggest thing is to kind of let some other people make some mistakes,”
Of the 16 races, Toyota has won 12 times this season. In Rhodes’ past experience in the Playoffs, he came close to making the Championship 4 in his first appearance of the postseason. In 2017, until a wreck with fellow Playoff contender Austin Cindric took him out of the opportunity.
Rhodes has never even had multiple wins in a season until this year. So could this be his best opportunity at winning the championship?
“Yes and no. Up to this point, it’s been the best season that I’ve had. Not I really, truly see the season resetting. This is the most bonus points I’ve had going into the Playoffs. I’ve got the best chance now based off of bonus points, but that’s about it. It’s anybody’s championship,” Rhodes explained to RPW.
21 Zane Smith
Playoff Points: 9
Season: No wins, 1 top-five, 10 top tens
Last year for Zane Smith, he was a part of an incredible rookie season that saw him make it all the way into the Championship 4.
In the insane final restart during overtime, Smith was in the lead in the two-lap dash but was passed by teammate Sheldon Creed to win the championship.
This season for Smith, it didn’t take him until round ten at Charlotte to lead laps in general. His closest finish is a 4th at Nashville. In four of the last five races, though, Smith has finished in the top ten.
So what’s the mindset like for Smith as he enters his second straight postseason?
“I feel like this year has been a struggle with bad luck. I hate using the word luck, but it really has been. It seems the past couple of weekends, we’ve been clicking or so. Just hope to get to Phoenix and win sooner than later to lock yourself in,” Smith told RPW.
However, a positive aforementioned is the 10 top tens have recorded earlier this season. Smith and his #21 team have been trying to push.
“They’re (his team) are putting in the same effort they were last year. I feel like some people caught up to us. The bad luck, most of it has been happening on pit road. We’ve got that cleaned up with a new pit crew, and they’ve been a lot of fun to work with,” Smith said.
18 Chandler Smith
Kyle Busch Motorsports
Playoff Points: 1
Season: No wins, 3 top fives, 5 top tens
It’s been a crazy up and down season for Chandler Smith.
One of two rookies to make the Playoffs, in his first entire season, he has an average finish of 16.8 and only a Playoff Point. His best outings of the season include a runner-up finish at Knoxville and a 4th place finish at Richmond, where he was in the possibility of a win after leading 24 laps and lost the lead with over 15 to go.
It got close for Smith though last race at Watkins Glen after failing post-race inspection, disqualifying him into the last place finish with only one point scored. Luckily that was just enough to make it in.
“I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason, and I think there is a reason all of the disaster happened at Watkins Glen. It was very unpredicted, obviously, and we ended up in the Playoffs. I’m definitely looking forward to flipping all of this luck around,” Smith said.
Team owner Kyle Busch was asked about Smith the day after he made the Playoffs, and while it was a sigh of relief at first, but Busch is concerned about his #18 team.
“Lot of simple mistakes being made over there. We’ve got to clean it up and be better here for these final seven weeks. They’re behind, so they have to do everything perfect,” Busch commented in his Watkins Glen pre-race availability.
Smith was informed of what KB said, and it gives him a spark to turn things around.
“I stay heavily involved with the team outside of just driving the truck as it is, and I was very aware of the situation that happened and how it happened, and at the end of the day, a mistake was made. We still made it into the Playoffs, but it doesn’t need to happen anymore,” Smith commented to RPW.
Smith says, though, in recent weeks, his truck has been fast.
“I feel like the past five or six races, we’ve been really good,” Smith said. “We have been one of the best trucks when we go the racetrack. It’s just a matter that we haven’t been able to really show it because something happens that forces us into a bad situation so that we are not able to show it.”
16 Austin Hill
Hattori Racing Enterprises
Playoff Points: 21
Season: 2 wins, 7 top fives, 12 top tens
Austin Hill likely comes in with the most momentum of all the Playoff drivers. The driver of the #16 is coming off back-to-back wins at Knoxville and Watkins Glen.
The first two races didn’t start the season in what Hill expected, finishing outside the top 20. However, from race three on today, there is one race that he finished outside the top ten, being a 13th place finish at Darlington.
Then the wins in the last two races, which has put Hill’s confidence up.
“I just think that with us winning these two races though just kind of builds our team’s confidence going forward, because before we won at the dirt track and before we won at the road course, we had won on mile-and-a-halves together, so we are kind of getting outside of that bubble that we were in, and we are winning at these different types of racetracks. Now we feel like we can go to these types of racetracks and win anywhere we go, so that kind of builds the confidence even more going into these Playoffs that we feel like we can get the job done no matter where we are at.”
Does he have more momentum in this swing compared to the guy to beat, John Hunter Nemechek?
“I’d like to believe so. Honestly, when you get to these Playoffs the wins that you had in the regular season don’t really matter. Obviously, you get those bonus points, and that helps you start the Playoffs, but the wins that you had prior to the Playoffs don’t matter a whole lot. You need to go win races in the Playoffs now, and these races that we are going to, a lot of them are a lot different than where we ran in the regular season,” Hill explained to RPW. “There’s a lot of unknowns going into these Playoffs. I personally feel like we have the upper hand on everybody. I feel like we can compete with the 4 team, and I think that we are the team that they need to be worried about the most.”
2 Sheldon Creed
Playoff Points: 11
Season: 1 win, 6 top fives, 7 top tens
Sheldon Creed had a phenomenal championship year last season. Five wins, two of those wins came in the postseason, including winning the championship race at Phoenix.
While Creed has kept the consistency of six top fives and seven top tens, Creed only has one win leading to a seeding outside of the top four.
“We hit our stride earlier in the year last year. This year it’s taken us a long time, but we’ve had really fast trucks in the last two asphalt tracks. I feel really good about where our trucks are going. Just need to execute and have good races and start up front,” Creed said on his confidence.
The last two asphalt races were both third-place finishes at Pocono and Watkins Glen.
His lone win came at a chaotic Darlington race where he missed the wreck with just under 30 to go.
“I feel like not having fast trucks, me making mistakes, trying to make up for it, and not finishing races. It doesn’t help when your trucks aren’t as good. Just a tough season. Our team as a whole, not the speed that we had last year. Hopefully, we’re in a better spot to compete against these guys.”
45 Carson Hocevar
Playoff Points: 2
Season: No wins, 3 top fives, 5 top tens
If you like an underdog, go with Carson Hocevar.
This young rookie has become the most improved driver in the Truck garage. From six of the first seven races outside the top ten to his next four, then four straight top 11 finishes, including a third at Darlington and runner-up at Charlotte.
Hocevar said a message as to why he shouldn’t be counted out for this championship.
“We’ve come close to wins multiple times, especially without sim time (like Darlington). It wasn’t available to me. We’re overlooked in that sense, even in our own organization, manufacturer’s wise. It’s huge for us to really outrun these teams, pennies on the dollar against their budge. We should run even better now that I have.”
This week has also been a big week for Hocevar as he re-signed with Niece for 2022.
On how important it was, Hocevar said, “It’s big. Hopefully, we can finish this year out really strong. It’s huge to have people believe in you and see your worth as a driver more than what you’re bringing with a number on a check. Hopefully, we can make this team a superstar team again and be front-runner weekly.”
38 Todd Gilliland
Front Row Motorsports
Playoff Points: 15
Season: One win, 7 top fives, 11 top tens
This is perhaps the best season Todd Gilliland has experienced.
Yes, even after his KBM days were up, the 21-year-old kid captured his lone win of the season at Circuit of the Americas and the first Truck win for Front Row Motorsports.
It’s been an incredible season for the #38 camp, and Gilliland can see it amongst the team.
“I think another year of truck experience for my crew chief (Chris Lawson). Last year it was really hard to have your first truck season as a crew chief when you can’t go to the racetrack and really learn from practice. I think going back, we’ve really stepped it up at the racetracks we struggled at last year, and then also continue to run good at the ones that we did run good at last year, so I think that’s the biggest thing for me,” Gilliland said.
In addition to the Truck in the Playoffs, what’s the mood like at Front Row with an unexpected Cup car in their Playoffs?
“It’s really good,” Gilliland told RPW. “Even starting off the year with the Daytona 500 win, like I said earlier, this is our first year in the shop, but really those guys take a lot of pride in watching the truck compete for wins and top fives every single week. That does raise the spirit, and like I said too, those guys just being the Cup Series team trying to be a part of it is a huge benefit to us. I think the two have lived in there really well together and probably benefitted each other quite a bit.”
4 John Hunter Nemechek
Kyle Busch Motorsports
Playoff Points: 49
Season: 5 wins, 9 top fives, 12 top 10s
What a season for John Hunter.
After leaving Front Row Motorsports’ Cup division, Nemechek was brought over to Kyle Busch Motorsports to turn their team around.
After two years of not having strong championship contenders similar to Noah Gragson, Christopher Bell, or Erik Jones, Nemechek has turned it up many notches. Even clinching the regular-season championship a week early, this driver is just so impressive.
Without question, Nemechek is the favorite to win the championship. Nemechek doesn’t let his mind think about it too much.
“It’s definitely nice to be called the favorite, but at the same time, just because we are called the favorite doesn’t mean that we stop working. There is a lot of work, a lot of detailed work, a lot of execution, a lot of optimizations from week in and week out studying, a lot of things that go into making you the favorite. For us, we are humble. We want to continue to win races, and for myself, I’ve been the underdog. I’ve had that mindset, and now we are kind of the favorite going into it. We have to go perform. We can’t beat ourselves. We’ve had the championship mindset from the first race of the year, and now we are going to continue to do so,” Nemechek said on Media Day Tuesday.
As we enter tomorrow night, Nemechek is up 28 points on second seed Austin Hill. On the cutoff, he’s 48 markers above.
If Nemechek doesn’t win the championship, which would be a shocker to many fans, would it be a failure?
“Our goal is to take the big trophy at the end of the year. I don’t know if I would categorize it as failure. We want to make it to that final four in Phoenix and give it our best shot. If our best shot isn’t good enough, then we have work to do in the future.”
52 Stewart Friesen
Halmar Friesen Racing
Playoff Points: 1
Season: 3 top fives, 4 top tens
Here’s a guy that, if you sum up his racing career, it’s that he will drive “any car, anywhere, anytime.”
That guy is Stewart Friesen.
It’s been a considerable improvement after moving to Toyota last season. Getting accustomed to the transition, Friesen has put himself into a playoff spot for the first time since 2019.
The last time Friesen was in the Playoffs, it was a dream year in 2019 that locked him in thanks to a dirt win at Eldora, his first career Truck win. A second win on the asphalt of Phoenix locked him into the Championship 4.
If Friesen happens to make it into the final round, watch him closely.
“I think we can be in the top-five for a lot of races, to be honest. Our team has got a lot of great equipment, a lot of great people. Our Tundras have been fast. Just executing the races and having a little bit of luck on our side to not get bounced around,” Friesen said Tuesday.
It’s been a busy week for Stewie so far. After winning the Centennial 102 at Orange County Fair Speedway, in a week, he raced Sunday at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Vermont, scoring a win in the first of two features. Thursday, he returned to OCFS for the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Models finishing 4th and racing in the Playoffs in St. Louis tomorrow. He’s even approaching Money Season soon with the Modified. Is fatigue ever a factor?
“This year has been a little bit crazy. Last year, being off for two months with the COVID break, when we went back to racing, it was like, well, let’s do everything we can,” Friesen commented. “It’s been a little bit much the last few weeks with the mid-week modified stuff. We are coming off a run where we ran five modified races in seven days since Watkins Glen, so it’s been busy, but what a problem to have, right? To be able to make a living a go racing like that, so I wouldn’t change it for the world.”