Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – ROSSBURG, OH – Depending on their racing background and certainly their ability to adapt quickly, NASCAR Gander Outdoors Series drivers show up in Rossburg, Ohio this week ready to test their skills on NASCAR champion Tony Stewart’s challenging half-mile Eldora Speedway dirt track – a venue that will likely help decide the 2019 championship field.
With only two races remaining to set the eight-driver playoff, Thursday night’s Eldora Dirt Derby (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is not only hugely popular for its one-of-a-kind challenge on the schedule, but it may be especially influential on the drivers’ NASCAR championship dreams.
Five drivers have already assured themselves of a shot at the title by earning trophies this year – including last week’s Pocono Raceway winner Ross Chastain, who has three wins, defending series champion Brett Moffitt, who has won twice and a race-winning trio that includes former series champ Johnny Sauter and talented young newcomers Austin Hill and Tyler Ankrum.
That leaves three positions to be decided and a pair of win-and-you’re-in automatic berths available should a new driver win this week at Eldora or next week at Michigan.
Three drivers currently hold a playoff pass in the championship standings. Last year’s Eldora runner-up finisher Grant Enfinger has led the points following 11 of the 14 races to date, including the last nine consecutively. Although he is winless on the season, the steady Enfinger holds a sizable 34-point cushion atop the championship and stands to earn a 15-point bonus for winning the regular season title. Mathematically speaking, Enfinger could locked up the regular-season title at Eldora. If he leaves Thursday’s race with a 61-point lead over second, he clinches.
Next poised to make the playoff field on points is Matt Crafton, who is second to his ThorSport Racing teammate Enfinger, among those drivers without a season win. He is the 2017 Eldora race winner and finished fourth last year at the track. He has top-10 finishes in all six Eldora races and a victory on Thursday would snap a 49-race winless streak.
The two-time series champ Crafton jumped ahead of Stewart Friesen in the points standings following a sixth place fun at Pocono, Pa. last week while Friesen crashed early and finished last (32nd). Crafton now holds a 16-point advantage over Friesen, who comes to Eldora a perennial favorite on the dirt half-miler.
It’s the kind of racing the Canadian has done all his career. Friesen won the pole position at Eldora in 2016 but finished 28th. He was runner-up to Enfinger in 2017 despite leading the most laps in the race (93 of 150). Last year he started fifth and finished third. Friesen and Enfinger lead the series regulars with two top-five finishes each at Eldora.
A disappointing run at Pocono last week, however, has dropped Friesen into the most vulnerable position among those without a win. He holds only a slim 13-point lead over rookie – and first-time Eldora competitor – Harrison Burton for that last playoff transfer position. Should a new winner claim Thursday night’s trophy, a maximum of two drivers would advance to the playoff on points earned. Should another new driver win at Michigan next week, that would mean only one driver advances solely on points gained.
Defending Eldora race winner Chase Briscoe – who earned his second NASCAR Xfinity Series victory last weekend at Iowa Speedway – will be trying to become the first driver in the race’s seven-race history to win multiple Eldora truck races. He’ll be driving a fifth ThorSport Racing Ford in his truck series season debut this weekend. Last year’s Eldora victory came in the only Gander Outdoors Truck Series race Briscoe entered.