By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Thursday’s UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway kicked off the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoffs, but it looked more like a “crashing the party vibe” than a night controlled by the 10 title contenders.
When you look at the top-five finishers, only an unsponsored Brett Moffitt represented the playoff competitors with a runner-up result. Otherwise, it was a 200-lap race that’ll go down as a night of guys making strong statements with Sam Mayer winning in just his seventh Truck Series start.
Behind Mayer and Moffitt was former NHRA Pro Stock champion Tanner Gray, who barely held off part-time racer Parker Kligerman.
Rounding out the top-five was supposed to be Tennessean Trevor Bayne, which would’ve been his maiden Truck Series top-five. However, his No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet Silverado failed post-race heights, leading to a gut wrenching disqualification.
As a result, Chandler Smith was promoted to the fifth position which is the 18-year-old’s first top-five finish of 2020. Despite the sudden result change, it doesn’t take away the positive spirits of some of the top finishers.
This Young Lad Just Keeps On Winning
Let’s start off with the super talented 17-year-old who has plans set into stone next year and beyond.
Just two days removed from signing an agreement of running in the Xfinity Series during the second half of 2021 and full-time in 2022 with JR Motorsports, Mayer showed his worth on the national stage.
The race winning passed was made on Lap 166 when he got by the former Truck Series champion of Moffitt, who happened to be his GMS Racing teammate. The young lad never looked back as his winning ways continued and over two hours later, Mayer went on to win the ARCA Menards Series race. See what I mean? He keeps on winning!
A performance like Mayer had has to be admirable because he’s just out there to gain more valuable track time. Boy, he did that and more as he crashed the playoff party without any hesitation and you can tell from his emotions how big of a deal is to win in NASCAR.
"WHAT? Oh my gosh. Bristol, dude."
— Alan Cavanna (@AlanCavanna) September 18, 2020
I’m looking forward to see how much progress he makes because if folks haven’t seen what he’s done in the regional and national ARCA level, you’re missing out because the kid is pretty damn good.
All Aboard the Trevor Bayne Train 2: Electric Boogaloo (Pre-Disqualification)
When I noticed that the former Daytona 500 champion was up in the top-five, I couldn’t remiss how astonished I was seeing him up among the top runners.
Niece Motorsports hasn’t had a great year without their flagman driver Ross Chastain. Doesn’t help that Chastain got some boost of running GMS equipment a year ago, so it’s far from the race team we saw.
A month ago, he hadn’t run a NASCAR race since 2018. Look at him now?
He already has an encouraging run and still has the passion of wanting to compete in racing. The time off to focus on his family and coffee business has sparked new life to the 29-year-old.
Prior of being disqualified, I asked Bayne what it meant to bring the Al Niece owned truck a strong performance, he was certainly flattered but also took the time to acknowledge Ty Majeski, who had just lost his ride in the No. 45 Chevrolet Silverado last week.
Bayne won’t be running at Las Vegas as Travis Pastrana will pilot the No. 45 truck next weekend. However, he’ll be hoping an encouraging run like Thursday would lead to a long-term future in the sport once again as the Truck Series remains the only series Bayne has yet to win in his racing career.
Adapting into Trucks Remains A Challenge for Gray
Gray scored his third top-five finish of his tumultuous rookie campaign with a career equal third. Unlike his previous top-fives at Kansas and Michigan, the New Mexico racer finally had a solid result on the short tracks where people took notice.
Getting a top-three finish at Bristol was no easy task as he had Kligerman all over him in the closing laps and coming towards the finish line, Gray held him off and not surprisingly, boosted his confidence level.
On what’s been a real tough year for the man who started off his stock career with impressive results, it hasn’t been a smooth transition for quite some time. So needless to say, a strong result on the short tracks is what Gray needed to boost his confidence levels.
To Gray’s credit and something he stated in the post-race video conference, having prior experience at Bristol paid tremendous dividends on his 200-lap race.
Time will tell how much growth the 21-year-old will go through over the remaining six races and beyond. In the meantime, it’s all about embracing the moment as he’ll be poised for another positive outing as he’ll be back at Vegas where he finished eighth back in February.
The Truck Series had plenty of uplifting stories, especially in the top-five where we saw a lot of progress. It comes to show you that folks shouldn’t count out the non-playoff drivers as their motives is to play spoiler and Bristol was no exception.
The next race will be at Las Vegas with live coverage of the World of Westgate 200 begins Friday, September 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1.