If the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series season taught us anything, it was never to count out the wily veterans. Despite a victory drought that dates back to July 2017, ThorSport Racing’s Matt Crafton took home his third series championship by perfectly playing the system to his benefit, finishing exactly where he needed to in each round of the playoffs to advance to the finale at Homestead.
Crafton again did exactly what he needed to do in the finale, racing at the front of the field all night long on his way to a runner-up finish, beating out the other three Championship 4 contenders. His third title safely in the bag, Crafton is in rarified company, joining four-time champion Ron Hornaday and fellow three-time champion Jack Sprague as the only drivers to win more than two titles in the series’ 24-year history.
The last-minute nature of the Gander Trucks offseason saw a couple of major moves heading into last season, with Austin Hill displacing 2018 series champion Brett Moffitt at Hattori Racing Enterprises. Moffitt, in turn, displaced 2016 series champion Johnny Sauter at GMS Racing, leaving Sauter rideless just weeks before the season started. Sauter would rejoin ThorSport, where he had first tasted Truck Series success from 2009 through 2015, just before the season started. But the last-minute changes didn’t seem to slow any of them.
Hill established himself as a star in the making with four series wins, including the season-opener at Daytona. Hill’s championship run was derailed by a pair of finishes outside the top 10 at Martinsville and Phoenix, leaving him to race to fifth in the series standings by winning at Homestead. The true shame, however, is that had he made the Championship 4 at Homestead, he would have locked up the title by winning the finale.
Moffitt also won four times in 2019 with his new team. It took him until the 10th race of the season, at Iowa, before he cracked into the victory column, but he stayed in contention for the title throughout the season, ultimately finishing third in the standings after running fifth at Homestead.
That Iowa race was a touch more adventurous for Sauter. He had a run-in with Hill that left him with a damaged truck and overheated temper. He retaliated, resulting in a one-race suspension. His championship hopes weren’t dashed, however, until an engine failure at Las Vegas left him sixth in the final standings.
All three — Hill, Moffitt and Sauter — are positioned to again fight for the series championship alongside Crafton, who will be entering his 20th full-time season. Crafton made his series debut in the final race of the 2000 season and hasn’t missed one since, a span of 453 consecutive starts. Perhaps the most impressive stat on Crafton’s resume is his 2019 championship because even when he couldn’t beat them on raw speed, he beat them by racing smart. He’s proved to be a driver you can’t count out, even when he’s not contending for wins on a weekly basis.
Other drivers who should contend for the title include Halmar Racing’s Stewart Friesen, who earned a pair of victories in 2019, and ThorSport’s Grant Enfinger, himself the 2015 ARCA Menards Series champion. Friesen, a dirt track ace, earned his first series win on the dirt at Eldora and backed it up with a come-from-behind win at Phoenix to lock into the Championship 4. Enfinger won the regular-season championship but saw his title hopes go up in a cloud of smoke with an engine failure at Las Vegas.
Rookie of the Year Tyler Ankrum, who won at Kentucky, will be back for another run in 2020, this time paired with Moffitt and Sheldon Creed at GMS Racing. Kyle Busch Motorsports will field a pair of rookies for a run at the championship, as 2019 ARCA Menards Series champion Christian Eckes will be paired with Canadian short track ace Raphael Lessard.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)