Story By: NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – Here is an in-depth look at the four drivers who have qualified for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship 4 and will race for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the Ford EcoBoost 200 on Friday night, Nov. 15 (at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Halmar Friesen Chevrolet)
A journeyman dirt track racer who cut his teeth on short tracks in the northeast, the 36-year-old Stewart Friesen is a bit of a late bloomer on the NASCAR national series scene. But he has quickly made up for lost time, winning a pair of races and qualifying for the Championship 4 in just his second season of entering every race on the schedule.
Friesen made his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut in 2016, running six races that year and putting together a best finish of 13th in New Hampshire. His team upped their commitment the next season, running 19 races and posting two top-five and five top-10 finishes – including a tough runner-up result on the dirt at Eldora.
A fulltime campaign last year earned Friesen his first Playoff berth after nine top fives and 16 top 10s. But this year has been especially impressive, as Friesen captured his first Gander Trucks win at Eldora and followed that up with his first national series win on a paved track last weekend at ISM Raceway to clinch his spot in the Championship 4.
So far this season Friesen has recorded 12 top fives and 16 top 10s, as well as a pole at Martinsville early in the season. He’s been very consistent with only three DNFs – two due to crashes (Daytona and the opening lap of Pocono) and one to mechanical issues (June Texas). And his average finish is 8.4.
Playoffs Recap: Stewart Friesen’s regular season consistency carried into the Playoffs, as he’s put together an average finish of 7.0 during the six postseason races. The lone finish worse than seventh was a 19th-place effort at Las Vegas. He’s been in a solid points position throughout the postseason, entering the Playoffs at Bristol seeded third. He was then fourth in points following the first cutoff at Las Vegas and entered last weekend’s race in Phoenix in second – 35 points ahead of fifth place and was in solid position to advance to the Championship 4 even without the automatic qualifier in the win.
Homestead-Miami Outlook: Friesen has a solid history at this weekend’s season finale venue. He finished 29th in his first visit to Miami in 2016, but was seventh in 2017 and then fourth last year. Overall at 1.5-mile tracks, Friesen has made 29 starts and posted 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. His performance this year has been up and down at tracks of that distance. While he has a pair of runner-up results (Texas-1 and Kentucky) and two third-place finishes (Charlotte and Chicago), he has also had four finishes of 15th or worse.
Crew Chief Corner: Long-time crew chief Trip Bruce has been atop Friesen’s pit box since the start of the 2017 season and the pair have partnered for 23 top fives and 32 top 10s as well as both of Friesen’s wins this season. Bruce has served as crew chief for at least a portion of 13 seasons in the Gander Trucks and four seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. And he’s very familiar with Homestead-Miami Speedway – and knows how to take a driver to Victory Lane there. He’s been at the helm for seven races in South Florida and won his first two starts at the track – in 2004 with Kasey Kahne and in 2007 with Johnny Benson Jr. His drivers have an average finish of 9.4 at the track and have compiled the two wins, three top fives and five top 10s.
Team Talk: Halmar Friesen Racing is synonymous with Stewart Friesen’s assent to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. And is a tribute to his roots, as it’s tied into his dirt racing team – Halmar Racing. The team made the Playoffs for the first time in 2018 with Friesen and was eliminated after the opening round. This year marks their first shot at the title after advancing to the Championship 4.
Ross Chastain (No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet Silverado)
In May, no one had Ross Chastain in their NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship 4.
It wasn’t because they didn’t believe in him – it was because he wasn’t eligible for the series title.
At the time, Chastain was still running for points in the NASCAR Xfinity Series while running full-time in all three national series – earning the moniker of “NASCAR’s busiest driver.” But as the calendar flipped to June, Chastain opted to switch to earning points in the Gander Trucks – starting with the June Texas Motor Speedway “standalone” race – and compete for a title in that series.
The eighth-generation farmer Chastain smashed his first Victory Lane watermelon after the May Kansas Gander Trucks race – but it was before he decided to commit to earning points in the series, so the win didn’t count for Playoff eligibility. Therefore, in order to contend for the title, he would have to work his way into the top 20 in points and get a win.
In his second race after declaring for Gander Trucks points, Iowa, Chastain crossed the finish line first, but his truck failed post-race inspection – relegating him to a last-place finish. That damaged his points standing and took away the automatic postseason bid that a win affords a driver.
But he rebounded the next week to get the win at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and then managed to climb into the top 20 in just his fifth race after deciding to pursue the truck title – Kentucky.
And the rest, as they say, was history. Chastain added another win at Pocono in July and tallied nine top-five and 18 top-10 finishes on the year to go with the three wins (only two of which counted towards the postseason).
In all this season, Chastain has competed in 75 races across the three national series – and recorded a NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Daytona in July for Kaulig Racing, the team he will race for full-time in 2020 as he pursues a Xfinity Series title.
Playoffs Recap: Ross Chastain entered the Playoffs seeded fourth on the strength of 12 Playoff points. And he put together solid finishes in the opening round – averaging a finish of 4.33 through the three races. He led a race-high 88 laps in the final race of the round at Las Vegas, but wound up finishing second to Austin Hill after a late-race pass. And he was leading with six laps to go at Talladega to open the Round of 6 but triggered the “Big One” while attempting a block and was knocked out of the race – leaving Alabama in sixth in the standings. He rebounded the next week in Martinsville – again leading a race-high number of laps (68) before being edged out by Todd Gilliland on a late-race restart and finishing second. That finish, along with trouble for nearly all of the other Playoff contenders, vaulted Chastain to third in the standings heading into the final race to set the Playoff field at ISM Raceway this past weekend. After not finding much speed through practice or qualifying (he started 14th), he was able to cross the line ninth to secure one of the Championship 4 slots contending for the title in Miami.
Homestead-Miami Outlook: Ross Chastain has made five NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway – spread out between 2011 and last year. His first start was in 2011, finishing 27th. He then put together a pair of top 10s in 2012 (10th) and 2013 (eighth) before finishing 11th in 2014. He took a break from the Gander Trucks at Miami before returning last year – finishing 16th while running for Niece Motorsports. In all, Chastain has driven three different manufacturers (Chevrolet in 2011, 2018 and now again in 2019), Ford (2013) and Toyota (2012, 2014) at Miami. And he has driven for five different teams there – RSS Racing (2011), SS Green Light Racing (2012), Brad Keselowski Racing (2013), Win-Tron Racing (2014) and Niece Motorsports (2018, 2019). And of note for Chastain, his first Gander Trucks win earlier this year came on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway – the same length as the circuit outside Miami.
Crew Chief Corner: Phil Gould has been atop the pit box for all but one Gander Trucks race with Ross Chastain this year (the June Texas race when he was the crew chief for Kyle Benjamin). The pair teamed up for three wins, nine top fives and 17 top 10s, as well as a pole at Michigan. This season is Gould’s first at the helm of a Gander Trucks team – he spent the past six seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series overseeing the operations of Roush Fenway Racing’s efforts with Ryan Reed (2016-2018) and Elliott Sadler (2015) and with Brian Scott at Richard Childress Racing (2013-2014). Friday night’s race will be Gould’s first Gander Trucks start at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he’s made six trips there in the Xfinity Series, recording one top 10 (with Brian Scott in 2014 – 10th).
Team Talk: This season marks Niece Motorsports’ third campaign in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series – and their first appearance in the Gander Trucks Playoffs. Chastain’s three wins this season were the first for the organization, and they’ve tallied 23 top-10 finishes in 2019 (in addition to 18 from Chastain, Jeb Burton had two, Timothy Peters had two and Bayley Currey had one). While Chastain has been the team’s lone full-time entry this year, they’ve had a total of 13 other drivers record at least one race behind the wheel of Niece Motorsports equipment this year. Angela Ruch will be making her eighth start for Niece Motorsports this season (and her 10th overall in 2019) as she’s entered in their second truck at Miami.
Matt Crafton (No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford F-150)
After missing the Championship 4 last season for the first time since the elimination-style Playoffs were introduced to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Matt Crafton is back to contend for the title in Miami.
The lone back-to-back champion in series history (2013, 2014) got to Miami the hard way – through consistency. Crafton is the only driver in the Championship 4 who hasn’t visited Victory Lane this season. In fact, he hasn’t hoisted a trophy since Eldora Speedway in July of 2017 – a string of 57 races without a win. But he’s put together six top-five and 17 top-10 finishes this season.
During the regular season, Crafton finished on the lead lap in all but one race – Kentucky – in which he was only two laps down at the finish. He had just two regular season race finishes outside the top 10 (14th at Atlanta and 13th at Kentucky). And during those 16 races that set the Playoff field, Crafton posted an average finish of 7.25.
Including the six Playoff races, he has an average finish of 9.1 on the season.
To take a look back at Crafton’s championship seasons – both of which were before the current Playoff format was introduced to the Gander Trucks – he had only one win in his first title campaign in 2013, the fourth race of the season at Kansas (a 1.5-mile track like Miami). He then finished 21st in the season finale at Miami but had already locked up the title by starting the race.
Then in 2014, Crafton won a pair of races en route to the title – but both wins were early in the season, at Martinsville in the second race and then at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in the sixth race. He then finished ninth at Miami to close out the title by 21 points over Ryan Blaney.
Playoffs Recap: For as consistently good as his regular season was, the Playoffs have been a roller coaster for Crafton. After an average finish of 7.25 in the opening 16 races, Crafton had an average finish of 14.12 in the six Playoff races thus far. Engine issues at Las Vegas, that also knocked his ThorSport Racing teammates Johnny Sauter and Grant Enfinger out of the Playoffs, relegated him to a 30th-place finish after completing only 39 laps. And fortunately for Crafton, he was in good company with Playoff drivers having issues at Martinsville as he finished 23rd there. A strong showing through the opening two stages of the race at ISM Raceway last weekend helps Crafton jump from fifth in the standings entering the race to the fourth and final championship-contending slot, beating out Austin Hill by six points for that position.
Homestead-Miami Outlook: The elder statesman of the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship 4 field has the most experience at this weekend’s finale venue – by a lot. Crafton has raced at the South Florida track 18 times, recording a win in 2015 and three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, and he’s completed all but six of the laps ran in those 18 events. In his last five visits to Miami, he’s tallied a top 10 and also has a runner-up finish from 2009. In all, Crafton has 163 starts at 1.5-mile circuits, recording nine wins, 54 top fives, 103 top 10s, and 10 poles.
Crew Chief Corner: Carl “Junior” Joiner and Matt Crafton have been teamed up together at the track since 2012 and it’s been quite the successful pairing. Together they have won 12 races (all but two of Crafton’s career Gander Trucks total) and put together 67 top-five and 130 top-10 finishes. Joiner was also atop the pit box for Crafton’s two championships in 2013 and 2014. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Joiner has helmed seven races – all with Crafton – with a win (2015) being his only top five at the venue and five total top 10s. The pair have an average finish of 8.9 together at Miami and have completed every lap run during those seven races.
Team Talk: Matt Crafton and ThorSport Racing go together like peanut butter and jelly. Crafton has raced all but 25 of his 452 career Gander Trucks races with ThorSport (his lone year away was the 2004 season, in which he raced fulltime for Kevin Harvick Incorporated). In addition to longevity with ThorSport Racing, Crafton is also in his 15th consecutive season with sponsor Menards on the hood of his truck. ThorSport Racing is the longest tenured team in the Gander Trucks and does it all from their Sandusky, Ohio, headquarters. They have a pair of Gander Trucks titles to their credit – from Crafton in 2013 and 2014.
Brett Moffitt (No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet)
Defending NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt is looking to become just the second driver in series history, after Matt Crafton in 2013 and 2014, to repeat as champion.
And although the results from year-to-year look the same (six wins, 13 top fives, 13 top 10s in 2018 and four wins, 12 top fives and 16 top 10s this season) – not much else looks the same for Moffitt.
Last year he won the championship with the “little team that could,” Hattori Racing Enterprises, in a Toyota with Scott Zipadelli as his crew chief. This year he’s in a Chevrolet with the multi-truck GMS Racing outfit and has Jerry Baxter atop his pit box.
Moffitt’s versatility was shown this season as his four wins came at a wide variety of tracks – the 7/8-mile oval in Iowa, the 1.5-mile speedway in Chicago, the half-mile concrete short track of Bristol, and then the 2.459-mile, 10-turn road course at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
In addition to his Gander Trucks accomplishments, the 27-year old was the 2015 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the Monster Energy Series.
Playoffs Recap: Brett Moffitt started out the Playoffs strong, winning the opening two races at Bristol and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Those victories vaulted him into the Round of 6 and added to his Playoff point total – helping put him into the Championship 4 following ISM Raceway. And those points, as well as the misfortunes of other Playoff drivers, carried him through after a tough Martinsville outing where he finished 29th after a crash took him out early.
Homestead-Miami Outlook: If there’s a Playoff venue where Moffitt should feel confident, it’s this weekend’s season finale track. Moffitt won last year’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to take his first NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship – in his only career series start at the track. Plus, four of his 11 career Gander Trucks wins have come at 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta, Chicago – twice, and Miami).
Crew Chief Corner: Jerry Baxter is the third of the four Championship 4 crew chiefs looking to win his first NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series title. The veteran has sat atop the pit box for 388 NASCAR national series races, 184 of them in the Gander Trucks. He’s recorded 15 wins with seven different drivers over nine seasons with the trucks, but has definitely put up his best numbers across the board this season recording four wins (tied for most in his career – 2013 with Bubba Wallace), 12 top fives (best in his career) and 16 top 10s (one shy of his career best of 17 in 2016 with Christopher Bell). Baxter has also had success at Miami – winning in his debut as a Gander Trucks crew chief at the track in 2012 with Cale Gale. He also won there with Bubba Wallace in 2014. He has two wins, two top fives and three top 10s in seven races at Miami.
Team Talk: GMS Racing won the 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series title with Johnny Sauter behind the wheel. It was their first, and to date only, NASCAR national series title. GMS has 27 Gander Trucks wins to their credit since joining the series in 2013. They are the only team to have fielded a Gander Trucks Championship 4 driver (Johnny Sauter, 2016-2018; Justin Haley in 2018 and Brett Moffitt in 2019) in all four years of the current elimination-style Playoff format.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Spoiler Alert – Spoilers aren’t unusual at Miami in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. In fact, when Brett Moffitt won last year for the title, it was the first year since the elimination-style format was introduced to the Gander Trucks Playoffs that the champion was also the race winner. William Byron won in the first year of the format while Johnny Sauter won the championship, and Chase Briscoe took the checkered flag while William Byron was the champ in 2017. The only non-Championship 4 driver entered in the race this weekend who has a win at Miami is Johnny Sauter (2011 winner).
Owner’s Crown – Three of the four teams with drivers entered in the Championship 4 (the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet with Brett Moffitt, the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet with Ross Chastain and No. 52 Halmar Friesen Chevrolet of Stewart Friesen) are in the hunt for the owner’s championship on Friday night. The No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota entry to be driven by Christian Eckes is also in the title bout, knocking out the No. 88 ThorSport Racing truck that has Matt Crafton contending for the driver’s championship. KBM has won a series-record six owner’s championships – including one with the No. 51 truck in 2013. Eckes has driven the No. 51 seven times this season for KBM, putting together two top fives and three top 10s. He also won the pole at Las Vegas in the fall and Martinsville two races ago.