Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FORT WORTH, TX – Ben Rhodes led Thursday’s opening Gander Outdoors Truck Series practice in preparation for Friday night’s SpeedyCash.com 400 at Texas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a speed of 180.681 mph around the 1.5-mile Fort Worth high banks – just besting five-time Texas winner Johnny Sauter.
Sauter answered by pacing the second practice (184.168 mph) over his ThorSport Racing teammate and championship leader Grant Enfinger then leading the final practice Thursday evening over Matt Crafton and Austin Hill.
Another championship contender Stewart Friesen – currently ranked second in the points standings – suffered a setback midway through the second session, crashing in his No. 52 Chevy truck after posting the ninth-best speed of the session. Friesen’s team confirmed he’ll have to go to a back-up Chevrolet for Friday’s race.
Qualifying for the race will be 5:35 p.m. ET on Friday. And this Texas race features the return of 2000 series champion Greg Biffle, who is driving the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Toyota Tundra. Biffle was 11th in opening practice, 12th in the second and 16th in the final session.
Triple Truck Challenge offers up to $500,000 bonus
The state of Texas prides itself on doing things B-I-G and this weekend marks the debut of the Truck Triple Challenge. The winner of the next three truck races – starting with Friday’s SpeedyCash.com 400 will earn $50,000. Should the same driver win again in the next “Challenge” race at Iowa Speedway, he gets a $150,000 bonus. Should that same driver win a third time – at the next venue World Wide Technology Raceway (formerly known as Gateway Raceway in Madison, Ill.) he would walk away with a $500,000 paycheck – all thanks to a well-received incentive program from the Gander Outdoors company.
“It’s the biggest purse I’ve raced for,’’ truck series rookie Harrison Burton said Thursday between practices at Texas. “It’s really cool for Gander Outdoors to put it up for us, a really cool opportunity for us.’’
Pressure mounting for KBM youth movement to develop
Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton conceded they feel a lot of pressure to win driving a pair of the best trucks in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series this year. However, they maintain, the pressure is from within. … not necessarily with their superstar team owner Kyle Busch, who has been vocal in urging his young proteges along.
The 18-year old Burton, son of retired NASCAR star Jeff Burton, has four top-10 and six top-11 finishes through the opening eight races of the year driving the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. His best finish is a third place at Dover and he’s ranked ninth in the championship.
The 19-year old Gilliland, son of NASCAR star David Gilliland, has four top-10 finishes in the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota truck, including a best of third place at Kansas two races ago. He’s ranked eighth in the championship standings. He finished fourth in the truck race here last Fall – a best ever showing in Fort Worth.
Burton told reporters Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway in advance of Friday night’s SpeedyCash400.com that he completely understands his owner Busch’s frustrations at the two – who tangled together in the Daytona season-opener. But he also understands and appreciates where Busch is coming from. He recognizes that to be a better driver you have to ask for advice and be open to criticism.
And always learning.
“At this level of the sport, you have to be very pro-active especially at a young age,’’ Burton said. “You have to ask a lot of questions.
“You have to make it happen in a short amount of time and it’s tough,’’ Burton explained. “If it were easy, everyone would do it. If there weren’t times like this everyone would be a seven-time champion.
“It’s about who comes through these times, gets motivated by these and starts kicking butt again basically. That’s my mindset anyway.’’
Crafton making slow progress back to the top
Matt Crafton is a two-time truck series champion and perennial race favorite, but even he concedes 2018 was one of the toughest years of his 19 fulltime seasons in the series. He didn’t win a race for the first time in seven seasons.
This year, Crafton and his ThorSport Motorsports team are motivated to right the ship and through the opening eight races seem to be doing so. Crafton has seven top-10 finishes through the opening eight races – actually he’s only finished worse than eighth place one time. He won the pole positions at the two races leading into Texas (at Kansas and at Charlotte) and he’s ranked fifth in the championship.
He’s won twice at Texas (2014 and 2015) and earned three pole positions. Crafton said, he’s ready to right this ship.
“I was real pissed off last year with the way we ran,’’ Crafton said. “Last year was definitely one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve had in my career. I can honestly say I was angry every week.’’
This year, however, Crafton allowed, “It’s been better. We haven’t been great, but it’s been better.’’
Chastain switches gears, declares for Gander Outdoors Truck Series points
Popular driver Ross Chastain formally declared he would be running for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship – switching his original plan from challenging the Xfinity Series, where he declared himself championship eligible at the beginning of the year.
Chastain must still win a race sometime in the remainder of the regular season and get into the top-20 in the points standings to earn a championship berth. He won at Kansas two races ago and is a perfect eight-for-eight in top-10 showings. Now he will start earning points toward the championship.
As unorthodox as it may be to switch championship focuses in the middle of the season, Chastain’s decision was well-received in the truck series.
“He’s a great guy,’’ said Stewart Friesen, who is currently second in the championship standings. “I’ve gotten to know Ross a little bit the last year or so. He’s a great competitor and it’s cool.
“Basically we’ve been racing him all year long anyway so he’s been there, just not on the scoreboard midweek. He’s a great racer so he’ll be good.”