Gander Trucks Playoff Battle Begins at Bristol

The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs will begin Thursday night with the running of the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics at Bristol Motor Speedway (MRN, 7 p.m. ET).

This year the playoff field expands from eight to 10 drivers and will see elimination races at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 3) and Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) before the championship race at Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

Bristol will host the first race in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. GMS Racing’s Brett Moffitt, who is still winless in 2020, is the only playoff driver that has won at Bristol after taking the checkered flag last season.

"I’ve never been there without practice," Moffitt said. "It’s going to be interesting. It seems like almost every time you go back there after the first run of practice you’re sitting there and you go to talk and you are out of breath because you forgot to breathe the whole time basically."

GMS leads the series with four drivers in the postseason with Sheldon Creed (first seed), Zane Smith (second seed), Moffitt (fifth seed) and Ankrum (10th seed).

See Also: Familiar Name Returns for 2021

Creed is making his first postseason appearance and leads the way with 2,026 points after recording three race wins and five stage wins in the first 16 races.

"Bristol is going to be really difficult," said Creed, who finished sixth last year at the half-mile track. "Our teammates will be good there and I hope we’re driving good there. Obviously, there’s other trucks that will be fighting for a win. I think this will be a good weekend to capitalize, if not just have a good finish. I’m not sure how we are going to be at Vegas. I’ve had speed at Vegas and I have also struggled at Vegas. Hopefully, we don’t have to go to Talladega with any stress and hopefully we are in on points."

Smith, a two-time winner this season, is one of two rookies in the playoffs joining Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Christian Eckes.

"A lot of people say it’s an even playing field, but it’s really not at all, especially for the rookies," Smith said about the updated no practice format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "I’m competing against people that have being doing it for years and years and this is my first time seeing the place and we are lining up racing them. It’s tough, but I’m just trying to make the most out of it.

"I think Bristol will be a good one for us. I’ve had it circled for this year."

Austin Hill
Click to watch Austin Hill on MRN Outloud!

Along with Smith, regular-season champion Austin Hill sits four points behind Creed. Hill is making his second playoff appearance after scoring the most top 10s in the first 16 races, with 14, including a win at Kansas Speedway in July. Last year, Hill finished fifth in the standings after winning two races in the playoffs.

"The playoff points are huge," Hill said. "If you look back at last season, we missed the Round of 4 by five or six points. If we would of had a little more points going into the playoffs to kind of fall back on we could of possible made it to the Round of 4.

"It’s really nice being the regular-season champion. It just goes to show how consistent we have been all season long."

ThorSport Racing has three of its four drivers in the playoffs led by Grant Enfinger, who won three times this season, including last week at Richmond. Enfinger joins teammates Ben Rhodes and defending champion Matt Crafton. The team comes into the playoffs having won the last two races with Rhodes also winning at Darlington.

"Just finding momentum at the right time," said Crafton, who ended a 67-race winless drought with his victory in the second Kansas race. "It’s not like we are doing anything really different. We’re just all hitting our stride right now. Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) are giving us everything to be able to that and that’s what it’s showing right now."

Crafton and Moffitt are the only previous champions in this year’s playoff field. Last year’s title for Crafton was his third overall and first in the playoff era, which started in 2016.

Eckes, Todd Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports) and Tyler Ankrum (GMS) are seeded eighth through 10th, respectively. Eckes and Gilliland are making their playoff debut while Ankrum finished eighth in the standings last season as a rookie driving for DGR-Crosley.

Although Eckes is a rookie, he did run part-time with KBM and crew chief Rudy Fugle in 2019. Fugle won the truck championship in 2015 and 2017 with Erik Jones and Christopher Bell, respectively. Jones was a rookie and Bell was in his second year when they took the titles.

"Obviously, we didn’t have the entirety of the season to kind of build momentum and stuff like that, but the experience last year definitely helped coming into this year, working with Rudy and running those eight races at mile-and-a-halves and a bunch of other race tracks," Eckes said. "Yeah, definitely didn’t feel like a rookie this year."

Motor Racing Network’s live coverage of Thursday night’s playoff opener will begin at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be followed by the ARCA Menards Series Bush’s 200 on MRN at 9:30 p.m. ET.