And so it has come down to this. A 250-lap race at a venue the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series has not visited since 2005 will decide which 10 competitors advance to the 2020 playoffs.
The ToyotaCare 250 on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Richmond Raceway is the series’ regular-season finale. And racing a new track with so much on the line may be the ultimate fair-and-square equalizer.
Austin Hill holds a 38-point advantage over Brett Moffitt for the coveted regular-season championship, which will reward the champ with a valuable 15-point bonus for his months-long work. And three drivers — 19-year-old Tyler Ankrum, 20-year-old Todd Gilliland and 19-year-old Derek Kraus will be vying for the final two points positions to carry into the postseason. Ankrum is ranked ninth with a four-point edge on Gilliland in 10th. Kraus sits in 11th, 10 points behind Gilliland.
Then of course, there‘s a real possibility someone not already playoff eligible takes the victory Thursday night and only one of those three young drivers advances in on points. Two recent championship contenders, 2016 series champ Johnny Sauter and Stewart Friesen — a member of the 2019 Championship 4 — are still winless on the season.
Veterans Sauter and reigning Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion Matt Crafton are the only series regulars to have actually competed in a truck race at the .75-mile Richmond track previously. The last driver to win a race there was Mike Skinner in 2005.
Sauter, who is ranked 15th in points (125 points behind 10th-place Gilliland) has competed in three Richmond truck races with a best finish of 10th in 2003. Crafton has run five truck races at Richmond with a best finish of seventh in 2005. Neither of these veterans has led a lap at the track.
Crafton won at Kansas Speedway in June, so he‘s already eligible to defend his season title. Sauter would need a victory Thursday night to make the playoffs. He has never finished worse than ninth in the championship in his 11 previous full-time seasons. And last year‘s sixth-place run marked the only time he‘d finished outside the top four since 2012.
Certainly the last handful of races leading up to Thursday‘s regular-season finale have been action-packed, producing plenty of drama for those three young drivers fighting for those last two points positions.
At various times last week at Darlington Raceway — another relatively “new” venue for the series — this trio of Ankrum, Gilliland and Kraus fought it out for position, all suffering different challenges in the race. In the end, Kraus gambled, stayed on track for an overtime restart and earned a career best runner-up finish to stay every bit in the playoff hunt.
Gilliland was seventh and Ankrum was 11th — good enough to keep their positions in front of Kraus in the championship points standings.
And while the Richmond oval may be new for them, Ankrum, Gilliland and Kraus have plenty of experience racing tracks shorter than a mile. It‘s what they grew up cutting their racing teeth on. All three have good reason to be confident heading to Virginia even if they haven‘t raced at this track.
“Before this year we‘d be nervous about going to a track we‘ve never been to, but really we‘ve gotten used to dealing with stuff we‘ve never done before,” Gilliland said. “The biggest thing is just getting our setup right for Richmond. We‘re trying to base it off races in the past like we have been all season.
“I think our Frontline Enterprises Ford F-150 will be good and hopefully I can get more laps on the Ford simulator to be as prepared as I can. We need to run the best race we can as a team and I think if we do that we should be able to stay above the cut line and focus on the playoffs.”
There is reason for all three to be optimistic.
Ankrum, driver of the No. 26 GMS Racing Chevrolet, has three ARCA Menards Series East wins on short tracks — ironically driving for Gilliland‘s father, David.
Gilliland, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, earned five of his seven ARCA Menards Series East wins on short tracks and all 12 of his ARCA Menards Series West career wins on short tracks — plus he has an ARCA Menards Series victory at the half-mile Toledo, Ohio, track.
Kraus, driver of the No. 19 McAnally Hilgemann Racing Toyota, earned nine of his 10 ARCA Menards Series West victories on short tracks en route to the 2019 series championship.
Championship points leader Austin Hill, who won a ARCA Menards Series East race at Richmond five years ago, will start his No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota from pole position Thursday night alongside last week‘s Darlington winner, Ben Rhodes. Kraus will start sixth, Gilliland will line up eighth, and Ankrum is 11th on the grid.
“Having Richmond on the schedule is great for the series,” Hill said. “It‘s one of the places the Truck Series was built on and it‘s always nice to go back to a track that you‘ve won at. It‘ll be similar to Darlington where not a lot of guys in the field have much experience and even though it (his win) was five years ago, it‘s always a benefit to have laps under your belt.”
What To Watch For: NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series points leader Austin Hill can clinch the regular-season championship Thursday night on his own with 23 points. … Richmond Raceway has hosted 11 Gander Truck races producing nine different pole winners and eight different race winners. … The first Gander Truck event at Richmond was on Sept. 7, 1995 and the event was won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte, driving a Chevrolet for NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick. … Mike Skinner (1996, 2005), Jack Sprague (1998, 2001) and Tony Stewart (2002, 2003) lead the series in wins at Richmond. … Only one of the 11 Gander Trucks races at Richmond have been won from the pole or first starting position, and it was the inaugural event. … The second starting position is the proficient starting position in the field producing more winners (five) than any other starting spot. … The deepest in the field a series race winner has started at Richmond is 27th by Tony Stewart in 2003.