While the Sprint Cup Series tackles the 12 turns of Sonoma Raceway, the Camping World Truck Series drivers will battle a whole other animal at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Just minutes away from downtown St. Louis, Missouri, Gateway is a unique track. It’s a 1.25 mile track that races like both a superspeedway, and a short track. The Trucks have ran one race a year at Gateway every year from 1998 up until the end of 2010 when NASCAR left the track. In 2014, the Truckers returned and Darrell Wallace, Jr. won a thrilling first race back.
Following an Iowa Speedway race that saw four rookies finish inside the top-10, it should be no surprise if the young rookies contend again. Cole Custer is a rookie candidate despite having won at Gateway last year. Custer started second on the night, and he led 19 of 160 laps en route to the second win of his career. Following a slow start to the season, Custer’s begun gaining back some momentum following a runner-up finish last weekend at Iowa. If Custer can win back-to-back Gateway races this weekend, he would be the second driver to win more than one race at the venue. Ted Musgrave won at Gateway in 2001 and 2005.
The other rookie who has impressed as of late is William Byron. Byron may be a rookie, but he also holds the most wins this season with three victories. Two of Byron’s three wins have come in the last two races at Texas and Iowa. Byron has no laps behind the wheel at Gateway, but that didn’t seem to hurt him at Kansas or Texas where he delivered impressive wins. If Byron wins on Saturday, not only does he score his third win in a row, but he laments himself as a serious championship contender.
After winning the Truck Series championship last year, Erik Jones moved on up to the XFINITY Series where he left behind a series he’s won in seven times, but since the XFINITY Series has an off-weekend, Jones is back to try and steal a win. Jones will run the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports, originally to be piloted by Cody Coughlin. Coughlin is focusing on a championship in another series, so he decided to skip his already scheduled race. For Jones, a chance at winning Gateway again is a shot at redemption. Last year, Jones fell out of the race late due to an electrical failure after starting on pole and leading 84 of 160 laps. Jones was on his way to the win, but he has a chance to get it again as a last minute stand-in.
Much like Jones, Matt Crafton is looking for his own redemption. With 10 laps left in the race last year, Crafton cut down a tire and wrecked while leading. He led 49 laps before earlier contact with John Hunter Nemechek shredded his tire, and ended his hopes of a win. The year before, the same bad luck struck Crafton. While leading late in the race, Crafton was involved in a wreck and his chances were dashed. Both wrecks resulted in finishes outside the top-20, and the two-time 2016 winner wants to add a Gateway win to his trophy case.
Former NASCAR Mexico Series champion German Quiroga was within three laps of his first career win at Gateway in 2014. It seemed like Quiroga was going to score that elusive first win when he grabbed the lead from Darrell Wallace, Jr. on the second-to-last restart, but when a final caution came out and Wallace had another shot on the restart, he got back by Quiroga with only three laps to go. Wallace won and Quiroga finished second. His first win still eludes him, but Quiroga’s back in the series on a part-time basis with Red Horse Racing after a year off last year. Gateway will only be Quiroga’s third race, but after a solid showing at Texas a few weeks ago, Quiroga’s shown he hasn’t lost the desire of racing. The Mexican driver will surely be one to watch on Saturday.
The 2014 race at Gateway was the race where fans began to finally take note of John Hunter Nemechek as a serious contender. Nemechek was just 17 years old when he took the green flag in that race, but he raced like a veteran. He got the lead from a strategy call and good track position and held it for most of the night, even into the closing stages of the race. An aggressive German Quiroga got into his left-rear tire causing a tire rub and a slow leak in the tire that would eventually cut the tire down with less than 15 to go. Minimal contact with the wall meant Nemechek was able to continue in the race and finish in 15th on the lead lap after leading 53 laps. The next year, Nemechek came back strong again. He didn’t lead any laps, but a solid fourth-place finish allowed for some redemption. Nemechek’s win at Atlanta theoretically locks himself in the Chase, but the second-generation driver would like to secure his spot in the Chase with a second season win at Gateway on Saturday.
With only one previous Gateway winner in the field this weekend, and a track that doesn’t normally favor repeat winners, any one of the drivers listed above could find themselves celebrating in victory lane, but there will be several others aiming to spoil the party.