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ThorSport Racing to mark 25th Trucks anniversary with Daytona season opener

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ThorSport Racing will reach a significant milestone when the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series kicks off the 2020 season on Feb. 14 at Daytona International Speedway: the Sandusky, Ohio organization will celebrate its 25th anniversary as a team in the Truck Series.

ThorSport, which is the longest-operating team in the Truck series, is returning with last season’s lineup intact for 2020: defending series champion Matt Crafton (crew chief Carl Joiner Jr.) in the No. 88, Johnny Sauter (crew chief Joe Shear Jr.) in the No. 13, Grant Enfinger (crew chief Jeff Hensley) in the No. 98 and Ben Rhodes (crew chief Matt Noyce) in the No. 99.

Since its initial driver, Terry Cook, competed in three races in the 1996 season, ThorSport has gone on to win three championships, all by Crafton (2013, 2014 and 2019). The team has compiled 30 wins by Cook, Crafton, Sauter, Rhodes, Enfinger and Chase Briscoe, as well as 253 top five and 533 top-10 finishes, plus 33 poles in the series.

It also captured one championship by Frank Kimmel in the ARCA Menards Series.

ThorSport drivers have finished in the top 10 in Truck Series points a total of 27 times, including a current streak of 13 in a row by Crafton from 2007 through 2019.

Crafton (453) and Cook (296) hold the record for most consecutive starts in Truck Series history. The Truck Series began competition in 1995, one year before ThorSport joined the series.

To mark its 25th Anniversary, all four ThorSport Racing Ford F-150’s will sport a special silver paint scheme at the season-opener in Daytona.

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Strategy is goal of pit road experiment in Xfinity, Trucks

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While Xfinity and Truck Series teams will save some money with the newly announced pit crew and strategy rules for seven standalone races, two NASCAR team officials cited a desire to increase “strategy” and “wit” with the move.

The financial angle is a “small aspect” of the format according to Ryan Pemberton, competition director for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, where the rules will be used in four races — at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (May 30), Iowa Speedway (June 13 and Aug. 1) and Road America (Aug. 8).

“I really think it’s about leveling the playing field a little bit and mixing it up, giving people opportunities to do something different on pit road that don’t normally have that opportunity,” Pemberton said after the announcement. “You take a 15th-place car and you can pick one of those guys back there that are having a good day, and it’s hard to have a real successful day due to the fact that maybe (it’s) their pit crew versus somebody else’s (more experienced) pit crew.

“I think from a strategic point, from a crew chief’s point of view, it puts more people in play, and it should be broadened ‑‑ the competition, how many guys could be in the top 10 on a regular basis and have more opportunities. And then from a logistics standpoint, it helps out, too, as far as the people and moving people across the country.

“But for the most part, it’s really about competition.”

Pemberton emphasized that teams that take two tires on a pit stop will start ahead of teams that took four.

“That mixes things up, makes for different opportunities for different people,” Pemberton said. “And then maybe one guy does it, maybe two guys do it, and the third guy wants to do it, next thing you know it really flips the field.”

David Pepper, the general manager of ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, made small team owner Jordan Anderson the poster child for those who could benefit from these rules in his series, which will use them at Iowa Speedway (June 12) and the playoff races at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 21) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Sept. 6).

Anderson, a driver-owner on an underfunded team, has only two top-10 finishes in 101 Truck Series starts. Those top 10s came at Daytona and Talladega.

“Jordan Anderson, who has had many good runs, and then we come down pit road and he can’t compete on pit road with the pit crew,” Pepper said. “This will allow that to go away and a team like that to compete at a high level and have an opportunity to showcase their crew chief and driver talent and their team’s talent in building a fast race truck.

“So we’ve leveled the playing field, and I think you’re going to see a lot of really good stories from a lot of really good race car drivers that are out there that are going to have an opportunity to go run in the top five and go run in the top 10.”

Among the rules is when teams can take two or four tires.

  • On an oval track, teams may add fuel and change two tires per stop. A second stop must be made to change the other two tires.
  • On a road course, teams may add fuel or change four tires per stop.

Pemberton raised the risk/reward that a team that is leading a race will have to consider when the caution comes out.

“How many people are going to take two behind me versus taking four?” Pemberton said. “That’s going to make even the guys up front rethink what they’re doing. Maybe they get cold feet and they go like, ‘Man, I’m only going to get two because I don’t want to give up the lead, and next thing you know maybe the guys right behind them get four.

“So it’s going to really change how you go about these pit stops. And that’s where the strategy comes in play, and I think that’s where the excitement level comes in.”

Eric Peterson, the Xfinity Series technical manager, addressed how the rules impact the relationship between the haves and have nots in the NASCAR garage.

“One of the things we looked at was kind of the data of our current pit stops and all the teams that consistently run in the top 10,” Peterson said “Our current pit stop strategy really did not mix the field up very well.  The average position change was right around one position.

 “That’s the reason we kind of took this other approach, is that kind of the purpose of coming down pit road and doing pit stops is to hopefully mix the field up a little bit where you don’t have a ‘follow the leader’ race the entire race.”

The first Xfinity race at Iowa last year saw Christopher Bell lead 186 of 250 laps to win. There were two lead changes in the last 190 laps of that race. Last year’s Truck race at Iowa saw Ross Chastain lead the final 141 laps to take the checkered flag before his victory was taken away when his truck failed post-race inspection.

The perspective of one Truck Series crew chief was provided by Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Rudy Fugle Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

Fugle said he’d be “open-minded” about the rules change, but said he’s “not 100% for” them.

“As the son of a mechanic, my first job as a young kid was working with someone disassembling cars at a salvage yard,” Fugle said. “I kind of grew up wanting to be a guy that changes tires on pit road. Taking that element out, or maybe leading to taking that element out is kind of … it’s not exciting to me. But I’ll be open-minded and we’ll attack and figure out how to make the system the best for KBM and figure out how to beat everybody, no matter what the rules are.”

Fugle also addressed how the new rules at the standalone races will impact the role of a spotter in pit strategy.

“Normally … the crew chief gets a lot of help on some of the ways the rules are and the way the pit road rules are from the spotter,” Fugle said. “Because the spotter can see what’s happening. So you want your spotter to know 100% what the rule is. … But now we go to the standalone races, you’re not going to have a normal spotter. You’re going to have a guy that only does three or four NASCAR races, so he’s not going to know those rules, let alone the new rules. We’re going to have to spread those delegations out a little bit through the team to make sure that we’re thinking of everything and not messing something up so we don’t make a mistake. I think that’s the biggest fear.”

While the financial savings of this limited pit format might be a “small aspect” for a team like JR Motorsports, it’s a different conversation for Tommy Joe Martins, who will race for his family-owned team in the Xfinity Series this year.

 

2019 Season in review: Matt Crafton

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Matt Crafton

CREW CHIEF: Carl Joiner

TEAM: ThorSport Racing

POINTS: First (third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship in last seven seasons)

WINS: Zero (has not won since Eldora in 2017)

LAPS LED: 44

TOP 5s: 7

TOP 10s: 18

POLES: Three (Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: While so much attention was focused on drivers like Ross Chastain, Austin Hill, Brett Moffitt, Stewart Friesen and Johnny Sauter, Crafton went about his season with diligence and determination. Even though he still hasn’t won a race in nearly 2 ½ years, he did what he needed to do to finish second in the season finale at Miami and earn just enough points to capture his third Trucks title in seven years. … Had the best single-season starting average of his Truck career (7.3).

WHAT WENT WRONG: Crafton proved you don’t always need to win races to win championships (it certainly helps, though). But the fact he hasn’t won in his last 58 starts is disconcerting. Still, he had an overall solid year, even if he didn’t get much attention until the final race of the season.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2020: Now that he’s tied Jack Sprague for second on the all-time Trucks championship list (three titles apiece), look for Crafton – who will turn 44 next June 11 – to try and pick things up a few more notches to challenge and try to catch the all-time Trucks leader, Ron Hornaday Jr., and his four championships.

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Matt Crafton wins third career Truck Series championship

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Matt Crafton may not have won a race this season – in fact, he hasn’t won since Eldora in mid-2017 – but he won the biggest prize of all Friday night, capturing the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Driving the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford, Crafton finished second to race winner Austin Hill (led a race-high 56 laps), but placed higher than the other Championship 4 drivers – Ross Chastain (finished fourth in the race, second in the season standings), 2018 champ Brett Moffitt (fifth in the race and third in the season standings) and Stewart Friesen (11th in the race and fourth in the season standings) – to take home his third career Truck championship.

Wrapping up his 19th full-time season in the Truck Series, Crafton’s previous titles were in 2013 and 2014. He finishes the season with zero wins, seven top-five and 18 top-10 finishes.

Click here for results.

Click here for final 2019 season standings

“It’s amazing, just one step closer to what Hornaday has done,” Crafton told FS1, alluding to NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr.’s record four Truck championships. Hornaday joined Crafton to celebrate in victory lane. Crafton is now tied for second on the all-time Truck Series championships list with Jack Sprague (three titles apiece).

“They called us the underdog, that I didn’t have it, but we fought harder than everyone, I guarantee you, every one of these guys worked harder,” Crafton said to FS1.  “This thing ran flawless all night, the motor was very good as well. Everything just went our way.”

Matt Crafton and his team celebrate after winning the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Crafton even poked a bit of fun at himself, having endured criticism and questions of his ability for not having won in over two years, and also having issues on restarts that led to some calling him “the old man” (at 43, Crafton was the oldest of the four Championship 4 drivers: Friesen is 36, Moffitt is 27 and Chastain is the youngest at 26).

“I guess I finally got up off the wheelchair and got up on the wheel and got it done,” Crafton told FS1 with a laugh. “I took a lot of criticism over restarts and it was time to get it done now.”

The rest of the top 10 finishers in the season finale were Christian Eckes (third place), Chastain, Moffitt, Johnny Sauter, Grant Enfinger, Todd Gilliland, Sheldon Creed and Parker Kligerman.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill led the last 2 laps to win the stage after Ross Chastain led first 28 laps

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill wins stage again. Only one driver has won the first two stages and then gone on to win the Truck race this season: Kyle Busch.

Who else had a good race: Austin Hill continued his late-season surge. Friday’s win was his third in the last eight races and fourth of the season. He bookends the season, having won the season opener at Daytona and the season finale a few hundred miles south in Homestead. “That’s probably the best truck I’ve had,” Hill told FS1. “We just showed how good we actually were. … Awesome way to end the season.”

Who had a bad race: Anthony Alfredo’s season ended before the race even began. Upon starting the engine, he developed a large fluid leak, leaving his team to push him back to the garage, his night over. … Ray Ciccarelli’s day ended after 46 laps when the motor in his truck blew up.

Notable: Making only his third career Truck Series start, Tanner Gray was running in the top 10 before finishing 16th. The 2018 NHRA Pro Stock champ’s previous best finish was 17th last week at Phoenix. … Christian Eckes drove the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota to clinch the owner’s championship.

What’s next: The 2020 season kicks off three months from now at Daytona International Speedway with the NextEra Energy 250 on February 14, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

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Truck Series Championship 4 Outlook

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Two past champions and two drivers who won their first Gander Outdoors Truck Series races this year are primed to battle for the championship Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Led by defending champion Brett Moffitt, the Championship 4 consists of Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen.

There are no upstart phenoms in this group of drivers, where the average age is 33. The veterans came out on top. But who will be the last one standing?

Here’s a breakdown of each driver.

Matt Crafton (No. 88 Ford for ThorSport Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: Two

Miami Record: Three top fives in 18 starts, including his win in 2014 to claim his second championship.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Crafton did everything he needed to short of winning a race this season to make the title race. He enters Miami with three top 10s in the playoffs and only one DNF through 22 races.

Outlook: It’s entirely possible Crafton could claim his third Truck Series title this weekend without having won a single race this season. In fact, he hasn’t won since the 2017 race at Eldora. The last time a national series driver won a title without a win was Austin Dillon with his Xfinity championship in 2013. Crafton will try to do it as the only Ford driver going against three Chevrolets.

“Just beat the other three guys,” Crafton said Friday night. “At the end of the day, just go out there and just make your truck the best you can in practice and Homestead’s always such an interesting one just because you have so much tire wear, you get so much tire falloff and you get one set of tires in practice. You have one shot to get the balance of your truck good. … But at the end of the day we know what trucks we’ll be racing for a championship.”

 

Brett Moffitt (No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing)

Wins: Four (Iowa, Chicago, Bristol, Canada)

Career Playoff Wins: Four (two this season)

Miami Record: Will make his second Truck start at the track following his win there last year to claim the title. Finished 31st and 36th in his two Cup Series starts.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Led the final 27 laps at Bristol and survived three restarts in that span to fend off Chandler Smith and Chastain for the win.

Outlook: Could become the second Truck Series driver to claim back-to-back titles, following Crafton’s 2013-14 reign. Regardless of the outcome Friday, Moffitt won’t have to worry about his career prospects. After proving GMS Racing’s decision to go with him over Johnny Sauter was the right one, he’ll be back in the No. 24 next season.

“I think it’s a different type of pressure,” Moffitt said Friday. “Last year (was) ‘What if I don’t get the opportunity again?’ type of pressure. Where this year is I need to perform for those who gave me this opportunity and that’s the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS. They’re working as hard as they possibly can to give me fast Silverados week-in and week-out. Anything short of winning a championship will be a disappointment for all of us. We feel like we have the best opportunity to do it. We feel like we have the best people to do it.”

 

Ross Chastain (No. 45 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports)

Wins: Three (Kansas, Gateway, Pocono)

Career Playoff Wins: None

Miami Record: Best finish in five Truck Series starts is eighth in 2013 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing. Finished 16th last year with Niece Motorsports.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Got a late start on the points race after he switched his points declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races in the Truck season. Checked off every box mandated by NASCAR to become playoff eligible, earning two wins in the process and scrapped his way into the Championship 4 without a playoff win.

Outlook: Chastain has everything to prove and nothing to lose Friday night. Eleven months since he lost a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series, Chastain has a shot at his first NASCAR title. Chastain will compete full-time in the Xfinity Series in 2020 with Kaulig Racing.

“Bet ya’ll didn’t expect to see me here … A dream come true,” Chastain said after he finished ninth in Phoenix. “My team owner Al (Niece) just said it best, he said ‘Why stop now?'”

 

Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Racing)

Wins: Two (Eldora, Phoenix)

Career Playoff Wins: One

Miami Record: Three starts with finishes of seventh and fourth the last two years.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): After a penalty at the start of the Phoenix race for beating the pole-sitter to the start-finish line, Friesen bounced back and held off Brandon Jones to claim his first win on asphalt and advance to the Championship 4.

Outlook: Friesen and Halmar Racing didn’t compete in NASCAR until 2016. They’ve won their first two races this season and are one race away from a championship. Like Brett Moffitt last year, we can’t help but speculate it’s because of the mustache.

“We’ve got our favorite truck we’re running next week that we’ve gotten a lot of time under our belt with,” Friesen said following his win. “It’s going to be a tough race, obviously. It gets tough to pass at Homestead. The tire falloff is huge. It falls off lap-to-lap. You can go out and start a run, you’re wide open for a lap. Then it backs up, backs up, backs up. Then you get right up on the boards. You got to work that air bubble and there’s a lot of stuff you can manipulate at Homestead to help yourself out that I’ve learned the last (three races there). It’s a gritty race track paved with the aggregate of the area. It looks like you’re racing on sea shells, that’s what it is. That’s what the pavement plants have there. It’s cool and it’s exciting. ”

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