Remember that saying about old age and treachery?
All but counted out for the title before the race began, without a win, and nearly a decade older than the next-oldest title contender, Matt Crafton, with tears in his eyes, was the one celebrating at the end.
Still winless for the year after finishing second in the Ford EcoBoost 200, Crafton won his third Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship.
“It feels amazing,” said an emotional Crafton after celebrating with a burnout. “It’s one step closer to what Hornaday has done, and they called us the underdog. I heard (FOX Sports 1 analyst Todd) Bodine and everybody say I was the underdog and I didn’t have it. We fought harder. I guarantee you every one of these guys worked harder and this Menard’s Ford F-150 was fast tonight.
“The first run I was like, ‘Oh, boy we’re in trouble.’ But we just made air-pressure adjustments from there. We made a few adjustments to tighten it up because we thought the track was gonna be green, it was gonna go away, but this thing ran flawless all night and the motor was very good as well and everything just went our way. I was praying there, ‘I do not want a yellow right here at the end of this thing.”
Austin Hill dominated the race, leading laps en route to the race win, his third of 2019 and his career. Hill, who hails from Winston, Georgia, failed to make the cut for the championship race after stumbling at both Martinsville and Phoenix, but showed that he will be a threat next year. He also clinched the manufacturer’s title for Toyota.
“I just have to give it all to my guys,” said Hill. “This is probably the best truck that I’ve had. I know we were really good at Vegas, but man, this thing was good. At Vegas we were on a different tire strategy than other guys, but we weren’t this time and we just showed then how good we actually were. I’m excited for the win, but at the same time it stings a little bit because I know if we would have been a little better in the Round of 6, we could be celebrating a win and a championship. I can’t thank everybody on this team enough.”
The owner title went to the No. 51 of Kyle Busch Motorsports, which Christian Eckes piloted to third place in the race. The truck has featured seven different drivers in 2019, including owner Busch and former series champion Greg Biffle.
“I struggled for most of the race honestly,” said Eckes. “This place is really tough. It got a little better there out front. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) made a great call. We were able to lead some laps and come home third. It’s awesome to get another championship for these guys. I’m just ready for 2020.”
Championship contenders Ross Chastain and Brett Moffitt rounded out the top five in the race. Johnny Sauter was sixth, with Grant Enfinger Todd Gilliland, Sheldon Creed and Parker Kligerman rounding out the top 10.
Stewart Friesen was the final title contender in 11th.
Friesen led the field to green after qualifying was rained out, setting the field on owner points, but Chastain took over the lead early, and most of Stage 1 was all about the battle between Chastain and Friesen as they gapped the field by over two seconds. But it was Hill who ran them down from over two seconds back with ten laps to go and took the green-and-white checkers in the first segment over Chastain, Friesen and Moffitt. Eckes ran fifth.
Crafton quickly worked his way from eighth to fifth but wound up settling for sixth to conclude the segment, but with no stage points for the title contenders, remained in close contention.
Moffitt led the field to green after pit stops, with Friesen next to him and Crafton and Chastain just behind in third and fourth. But it only took Chastain a lap to rocket back to the lead, bringing Moffitt and Crafton along as Friesen dropped to fifth to kick off Stage 2. Hill wasn’t done, though, working past Moffitt and pressuring Crafton for second before setting sail for Chastain and the lead.
None of the title contenders fought Hill very hard, because they had each other to contend with, running one after the other in second through fifth when the caution flew for fluid for Ray Ciccarelli’s smoking truck. The race restarted with just a handful of laps remaining in the stage, and this time it was Hill and Crafton battling for the flag. Hill took the top spot again, with Crafton leading the title hunters in second, followed by Chastain, Moffitt and Friesen.
Hill came out of the pits as the leader this time, with Chastain the biggest loser, dropping three spots. Eckes and Ben Rhodes stayed on track to lead with Crafton and Hill behind them, giving Crafton a temporary cushion over the other title contenders thanks to Hill, but that didn’t last long, as Friesen got around Hill for third as Eckes held the lead.
Hill reasserted his speed, moving into the lead again on lap 90. Before final pit stops, Crafton built up a three-second lead over Friesen, whose truck faded during long runs all night, and allowed Moffitt to battle him for third. Chastain trailed the group, running seventh after 90 laps.
The leaders made their final pit stops with just over 30 laps to go, and the four contenders all had clean stops, though Friesen did lose some ground to Moffitt and Chastain. Crafton was the big winner, inheriting the lead after the field cycled through stops. From there on out, it was a show of power as Hill retook the lead easily, while Crafton appeared to have the title race well in hand, leading Chastain by over seven seconds with fewer than 10 laps remaining. Eckes was holding down the owner title advantage in third.
Ten laps is an eternity when the whole season comes down to that span. Hill, Crafton and Eckes were the only ones not hoping for a caution in that span, but the yellow didn’t come, and what was perhaps the series’ most unlikely title scenario since the playoffs were added played out.
Crafton’s title comes on the heels of what’s now a 58-race winless streak for the 43-year-old. His season finale had a bit of everything: the lowest starting spot of any contender, some aggressive moves on his part, and virtual perfection from his pit crew, who gave him what proved to be an insurmountable gap on his final stop under green.
Chastain finishes second in points, Moffitt third, and Friesen fourth. Hill’s win moves him to fifth in the final standings. Sauter, Enfinger, and Tyler Ankrum finished sixth through eighth. Ben Rhodes and Creed finished ninth and tenth for the year, outside the playoff cut.
Ankrum also took home Rookie of the Year honors.
“It was an up-and-down season,” Ankrum said. “We had a lot of great success. We ran top five a handful of times, and we won at Kentucky, which was huge for DGR-Crosley. Huge for Toyota and huge for myself.”
Meanwhile, the road to the Championship has been a bumpy one for Crafton, and he knows that.
“I guess I finally got out of the wheelchair and got up on the wheel and got it done,” he said. “Like I said, I took a lot of criticism over the restarts and it was time to get it done now.”
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Homestead-Miami Speedway – Homestead, FL
Ford EcoBoost 200 – November 15, 2019
1. (5) Austin Hill, Toyota, 134.
2. (9) Matt Crafton (P), Ford, 134.
3. (2) Christian Eckes, Toyota, 134.
4. (3) Ross Chastain (P), Chevrolet, 134.
5. (4) Brett Moffitt (P), Chevrolet, 134.
6. (6) Johnny Sauter, Ford, 134.
7. (7) Grant Enfinger, Ford, 134.
8. (11) Todd Gilliland, Toyota, 134.
9. (12) Sheldon Creed #, Chevrolet, 134.
10. (27) Parker Kligerman, Chevrolet, 134.
11. (1) Stewart Friesen (P), Chevrolet, 134.
12. (10) Ben Rhodes, Ford, 134.
13. (13) Harrison Burton #, Toyota, 134.
14. (23) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 133.
15. (19) Gus Dean #, Chevrolet, 133.
16. (26) Tanner Gray, Toyota, 133.
17. (32) Jesse Little, Ford, 133.
18. (15) Tyler Dippel #, Chevrolet, 133.
19. (14) Austin Wayne Self, Chevrolet, 133.
20. (20) Natalie Decker #, Toyota, 133.
21. (18) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, 132.
22. (8) Tyler Ankrum #, Toyota, 132.
23. (28) Tyler Hill, Chevrolet, 132.
24. (16) Colby Howard, Chevrolet, 132.
25. (22) Danny Bohn, Toyota, 132.
26. (30) Codie Rohrbaugh, Chevrolet, 130.
27. (29) Cory Roper, Ford, 129.
28. (25) Jennifer Jo Cobb, Chevrolet, 128.
29. (17) Angela Ruch, Chevrolet, 127.
30. (21) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, Electrical, 113.
31. (31) Ray Ciccarelli, Chevrolet, Oil Line, 48.
32. (24) Anthony Alfredo #, Toyota, Engine, 0.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 131.492 mph.
Time of Race: 1 Hrs, 31 Mins, 43 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.569 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 3 for 14 laps.
Lead Changes: 12 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: S. Friesen (P) 0;R. Chastain (P) 1-28;A. Hill 29-32;B. Moffitt (P) 33-35;R. Chastain (P) 36-43;A. Hill 44-55;M. Crafton (P) 56;A. Hill 57-63;C. Eckes 64-89;A. Hill 90-99;G. Dean # 100-103;M. Crafton (P) 104-111;A. Hill 112-134.
Leaders Summary: (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led) Austin Hill 5 times for 56 laps; Ross Chastain (P) 2 times for 36 laps; Christian Eckes 1 time for 26 laps; Matt Crafton (P) 2 times for 9 laps; Gus Dean # 1 time for 4 laps; Brett Moffitt (P) 1 time for 3 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 16,45,52,24,51,88,2,17,98,13
Stage #2 Top Ten: 16,88,45,24,52,98,75,13,2,7
Top 4 in Points: 1. Matt Crafton – 4035; 2. Ross Chastain – 4033 (3 Wins); 3. Brett Moffitt – 4032 (4 Wins); 4. Stewart Friesen – 4026 (2 Wins).