Truck Series championship: Three men and a millennial

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Matt Crafton, Timothy Peters,  Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell.

One of these things is not like the other.

That would be Bell. The Camping World Truck Series rookie is the only participant in the championship race born after Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The 21-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma, is the only representative of the “Millennial” generation that is headlining NASCAR’s lauded “youth movement.”

Tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 may well be the last stand of the veteran Truck driver.

With help from wins, consistency, and the inaugural Chase format, Crafton (40 years old), Sauter (38) and Peters (35) fended off a wave of drivers who can barely grow a beard.

Sauter, who has three wins this season, is “not surprised” the final four has three veteran drivers.

“Ultimately, I think the veteran guys just probably through the course of the year raced a little bit differently than some of the younger guys, I would say, maybe a little bit smarter,” Sauter said Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day. “That just comes with experience, taking care of your equipment, things like that. So I’m not surprised by any means to sit here and know that we’ve got three of them, three veterans, running for the championship.”

Bell enters the finale with one win (Gateway), nine top fives and 16 top-10 finishes. Tonight’s race will be his 30th series start. The next closest among the title contenders is Sauter with 197 starts.

“I’ve always been the young guy,” Bell said. “It’s nothing new to me right now. Whenever I won the USAC championship (in 2013) … me and Bryan Clauson were the two guys at the end of the year that were racing for the championship. He was the veteran, I was the rookie.

“I’ve been in this situation before, obviously not at this magnitude. But I do have experience at, I guess, championship racing and pressure moments. So I’m excited to get the pressure on Friday and try and do my best to conquer it.”

One thing Crafton and Bell have in common, born 18 years apart, is they weren’t initially enthusiastic about the Chase format that’s put them 134 laps away from a NASCAR title.

“I wasn’t a fan of the Chase at all, but right now in the year that I’ve had with five DNF’s, to still be in contention for a championship, that’s unheard of,” said Crafton, a two-time champion. “You still have to be very consistent.”

Said Bell: “I was actually disappointed whenever I heard that NASCAR was going to the Chase format for the trucks because I felt like being at Kyle Busch Motorsports, we were going to be able to contend for the championship and be able to perform week in and week out, win the championship in the normal way.”

But unlike his teammate, fellow rookie William Byron, wins didn’t come in bunches.

“To be able to sit here in the final four, one race away from a championship is something that I wouldn’t have seen coming if you would have asked me in April or May,” said Bell. “It’s awesome to be in this situation.”

Sauter agrees. The native of Necedah, Wisconsin, has been competing in NASCAR since 2001 and has never won a title. With a chance to top his runner-up result in the Truck series in 2011, Sauter knows the end of his career is near.

“You know, when I say I’m running on time, I’m no fool,” Sauter said. “The landscape is changing. Having said that, it’s a younger man’s game. That seems to be the new trend. I personally feel like, you know, I’m running out of chances. That obviously weighs in the back of my mind a little bit. But at the end of the day, I’m going to give 100 percent. If it works out, great.”

While tonight’s race could be the last glorious chapter for a generation of Truck drivers, it could be worse. If not for an engine problem with 12 laps left in last weekend’s Phoenix race, Crafton, Peters, and Sauter would likely be competing against 18-year-old Byron.

At least with Bell, they can all get a season-ending beer together.