But a funny thing happened on the way to the seven-race playoff.
The 19-year-old Gilliland and 18-year-old Burton – two highly touted drivers for one of the series’ best teams – failed to RSVP to the party.
Instead, the first driver to compete for a NASCAR title who was born after the Y2K scare will be Tyler Ankrum, the Truck Series’ Rookie of the Year.
Ankrum sticks out, and that’s not just because of his blond hair.
Blame it on his birth date: March 6, 2001.
That’s five months after the first career start of Matt Crafton at Auto Club Speedway, the track located roughly 17 miles from Ankrum’s hometown of San Bernardino, California.
“That’s kind of crazy,” an amused Crafton says when informed of Ankrum’s status as a driver born after the turn of the century. “I haven’t really even thought about it. … Hopefully he keeps that at the back of his mind and respects his elders.”
Ankrum’s respect shows in his reaction to being among the eight drivers interviewed Tuesday at the Truck Series Playoff Media Day.
“It’s crazy,” Ankrum said. “I’m up here with guys that, some of them have been racing longer than I’ve been alive. They’re great influences in the sport and in fact they’ve been heroes of mine.”
That includes Crafton.
“By the time I was a rookie in late models or a year or two into late models, he was still winning a ton of races,” Ankrum said. “He was one of those guys that I was rooting for every week.”
“(It means) a lot,” Ankrum said. “Because this year, not to talk bad about them, they’re expected to win races, they’re expected to win in those KBM trucks and they didn’t. Not saying they won’t. ‘Cause there’s six, seven races left in the series. I wasn’t expected to win. I was expected to run 10th through 15th in a DGR-Crosley truck.
Though he was the defending K&N East Pro Series champion, Ankrum’s expectations for himself weren’t very high when his season started three races late, a product of NASCAR’s rules against anyone under 18 competing on speedways.
“I honestly said to myself ‘I’d be happy finishing in the top five a couple of times,'” Ankrum recalled. “I didn’t really have the confidence in myself to even think I could win a stage.”
After his season debut at Martinsville, where he finished 19th, Ankrum would have to wait five races until his first top five at Texas Motor Speedway.
Then sponsor issues led Ankrum to start-and-park in two races with NEMCO Motorsports, which kept his championship eligibility intact.
“Joe Nemechek so graciously gave me the opportunity … in a way we were kind of placing our bet,” Ankrum said. “We’re going to spend a little money doing this and we’re going try to stay in the hunt for this championship.”
Ankrum returned to DGR-Crosley and his bet paid off on July 11 at Kentucky Speedway. After leading 38 laps, Ankrum inherited the lead with two laps left when Moffitt ran out of gas. He scored his first career win in his 12th start.
It was also the first win in the Truck Series for DGR-Crosley.
Ankrum followed that a race later with a runner-up finish at Pocono. The regular-season finale at Michigan had him leading and in position to possibly win. But on an overtime restart, he spun his tires and lost control when Crafton gave Ankrum’s truck a push, sparking a nine-truck wreck.
But the incident didn’t dampen Ankrum’s confidence for the playoffs, which begin tonight at Bristol Motor Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
“What we’ve done is run up front and won a race,” Ankrum said. “I think for everyone else it’s a shock and for us it’s a bit of a surprise as well, but we know what we’re working on week-in and week-out. We know that we’ve been working towards this and it’s gotten better.”
With fewer opportunities to make the playoffs and show off his abilities, Ankrum’s performance has left an impression on one of his childhood heroes.
“Ankrum to be honest,” Crafton says when asked which young playoff driver has impressed him the most. “It’s been just the little experience he’s had … I felt like he had good talent, he’d come in, sneak up for some top fives and lo and behold he goes and wins a race. … He’s done a real good job.”