Column By: NASCAR – ROSSBURG, OH – After a rough outing at Pocono Raceway that saw a first-turn crash relegate him to a last-place finish, Stewart Friesen knows that he needs solid results – or even better, a win – in the next two races to keep him in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoff picture.
The Canadian driver originally from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is well-known on the dirt tracks in the northeast. He finished second in the Super DIRTcar Series points in 2016 and has over 260 dirt wins to his credit. Five of those wins came at the NAPA Super DIRT Week at Oswego Speedway – including three in a row from 2014-2016.
His first trip to Eldora in 2016 was actually his Gander Trucks debut, and it didn’t go as smoothly as he wished as a crash with just under 40 laps to go took him out and left him with a 28th-place finish.
But since then, Friesen has come oh-so-close at Eldora. In 2017, he captured his first career series pole at Eldora and went on to lead a race-high 93 laps and battled back from an unscheduled pit stop at the end of Stage 2 to change a tire that was going down – taking back the lead on Lap 115. But Matt Crafton was able to power past him with 17 laps to go and Friesen would stay behind in second.
Last year, Friesen spun early but recovered, only to watch Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger battle it out ahead of him for the win as Friesen finished third.
Overall this season, the driver of the No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Friesen Racing has recorded a pole (Martinsville), eight top fives and nine top 10s through 14 races. Prior to finishing 32nd at Pocono last weekend, Friesen had four straight top-five finishes – three of them in the top three, including a runner-up result at Kentucky.
He’s currently in a precarious position in regard to the Playoffs as he sits in the eighth and final spot based on points. If a championship-eligible driver who has not already won this year makes it to Victory Lane at Eldora or Michigan, Friesen would be the first driver out.
And he currently sits only 13 points ahead of Harrison Burton, who is ninth on the Playoff outlook. A couple good points days from Burton and a couple bad performances from Friesen (similar to what happened at Pocono) could knock Friesen out of the postseason.
Crafton looking to end another winless streak with a dirt win
On June 19, 2017, Matt Crafton ended a 27-race winless streak with a surprising late-race surge to overtake Stewart Friesen and capture his first win on dirt.
Now, just over two years later, Crafton is riding another winless streak that began 10 days later with the next race after his Eldora win – Pocono – and is now at 49 races long.
It’s not that he hasn’t put together solid results during that drought of Victory Lane visits. Since his last win, he has recorded 15 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes…including four runner-up placements, his most recent this June at Texas Motor Speedway. And in 14 starts this season, he has only two finishes outside the top 10 (14th at Atlanta, 13th at Kentucky).
Crafton’s made six starts on the dirt at Eldora and has yet to finish outside the top 10. In his most recent effort there, he placed fourth last year.
He’s another driver whose Playoff prospects are in a precarious position. With five drivers in on wins and points leader Grant Enfinger (who is winless on the year) currently holding the spot allotted to the regular season champion, that leaves two open spots with two races to go.
Currently, Crafton is in the seventh spot, 29 points ahead of Harrison Burton sitting right outside the cutoff. Stewart Friesen is in the final slot (eighth), 16 points behind Crafton.
A rough outing by Crafton at either Eldora or Michigan could have a major impact on the points – as could a trip to Victory Lane by a championship-eligible driver (or two) who hasn’t won yet this year.
Crafton would prefer to take away the uncertainty, become the first two-time Eldora victor and win his way into the postseason – all while putting his winless streak in the rearview mirror.
Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers on the outside looking in
As a team, Kyle Busch Motorsports has won more races than any other team this season (six total) and has captured six of Toyota’s eight NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories this year.
But despite all of that success, the dominant team doesn’t currently have a driver in position to contend for postseason glory.
None of those wins came from Playoff-eligible drivers as team owner Kyle Busch won five races and Greg Biffle recorded the sixth in the June Texas race. Without a win, and reliant on points for a shot at the postseason, the two full-time KBM drivers are on the outside looking in when it comes to the Playoffs.
Harrison Burton, driver of the No. 18 Toyota, is just 13 points outside of the eighth and final Playoff spot, currently held by Stewart Friesen. By most standards, he’s had a pretty solid season – through 14 races he has seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes and has been gaining in the points recently.
He’s finished in the top five in five of the last six races, including consecutive third-place results in the most recent two races at Kentucky and Pocono and another at Iowa.
Burton has made just one visit to the half-mile Eldora dirt track, finishing 15th last summer.
While Burton isn’t too far out of Playoff contention on points, his teammate Todd Gilliland in the No. 4 Toyota is 85 points behind the final spot held by Friesen, so his only real shot at getting into the Playoffs is with a win.
Gilliland has a pair of top fives and eight top 10s this season and came closest to victory just four races ago when he finished runner-up to Ross Chastain at Gateway. Whereas Burton has posted some of his best results in the most recent three races, Gilliland has averaged a finish of 10th over that time – which has hurt him in the points.
He also has only one start at Eldora where he finished 22nd last year.
Two to go in the Gander Trucks regular season
With five drivers locked in on wins, the next two races are at two very different tracks and will be key to drivers’ Playoffs hopes and dreams. Here’s a look at the remaining two tracks and some of the best performances at each by drivers not currently locked into the Playoffs with a win.