Camping World Truck Series drivers embark on playoff opener at IRP for Friday night’s TSport 200 (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN)

INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time since 2011, one of NASCAR’s top 3 divisions will head to the Indianapolis Raceway Park for points paying competition. For decades, IRP was popular not just for those in the grandstands, but for those in the NASCAR garage too.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series, formerly known as the Busch Grand National division, started coming here in 1982 for the annual Kroger 200. The race lasted three decades with 30 visits by NASCAR’s version of AAA. This race had a who’s who of stars race in it.

In 1995, it was the Truck Series turn to join in on the fun around .686-mile short track tucked into the west side of Indianapolis. They came for 17 straight years.

However, the 2011 season was the last for both series. The Xfinity cars moved to the big track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Trucks took the weekend off.

ARCA filled the gap in 8 of the 10 years since, but they don’t have the pull that Trucks or Xfinity has at IRP. Now, the Trucks are back and not only is it back in it’s rightful place on the Friday night of the NASCAR weekend at IMS, but the TSport 200 (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) will serve as the playoff opener for the Camping World Truck Series.

This is the first of 7 playoff races with an opening round that consists of IRP, Richmond and Kansas. The 2nd round features Bristol, Talladega and Homestead before the Championship 4 to decide who wins this year’s title on Nov. 4 in Phoenix.

As you’d see, 3 of the first 4 playoff races are on short tracks. Expect some fireworks over the next month of action.

As far as who’s going to be represented in the Championship 4?

Zane Smith enters as the No. 1 seed. The top seed in the playoffs was represented in the Championship 4 in 5 of the 6 years under this format including all consecutively. Smith has advanced to the final round in both of his years in the Truck Series as well. Last year Ben Rhodes won the season opener at Daytona and took home the championship crown in the season finale at Phoenix. Can Smith?

The top seed has won 2 championships in this era but just one in the last 4 years though.

Smith ended the regular season on the heels of 3 wins and 13 top 10 finishes. The Front Row Motorsports driver also had 9 top 5 finishes in 2022 including 4 top 3’s over the final 5 races run.

Chandler Smith scored his 2nd win of the season in Pocono last week and enters the playoffs with 7 top 8 finishes over the last 9 regular season races. He’s the No. 2 seed. In 2 of the last 3 years, the second seed was eliminated in the first round.

Smith won the Bristol playoff race last year as well as winning at Phoenix too. Unfortunately he was eliminated in the 2nd round of the playoffs or he would have taken home title via his Phoenix win.

Rhodes enters as the defending series champion but after a hot start to the year, he’s since cooled. The ThorSport driver had 5 top 5 finishes in the opening 6 races run but hasn’t finished better than 8th in the 10 races since. In fact, he’s only had 4 top 10’s over those last 10 races run. This is his 5th playoff appearance though so he doesn’t hold a lot of weight on the regular season. It’s all about the playoffs. He backed his way into last year’s postseason as the No. 3 seed last year too, with 1 top 5 in the final 7 regular season events. He still took home the crown.

You also can’t count out last year’s regular season champion and Chandler Smith’s teammate in John Hunter Nemechek. He started off slow (3 straight finishes of 24th or worse) but since heated up. The second generation driver had 9 top 6 finishes over the final 13 races run including a 3rd at Pocono. In saying that, the No. 4 seed has just 1 final round appearance in the last 4 years and has never produced a champion.

Another Toyota driver in Stewart Friesen is the No. 5 seed. Friesen is also going to be a contender. He had 6 top 10 finishes over the final 8 races after only having 3 in the first 8 run. 5 of the final 8 races saw him finish in the top 5 to where he only had 1 in the opening 8. The 5 seed has made the final round in 2 of the last 3 years and was the champion via Johnny Sauter in 2016. This is Friesen’s 4th playoff appearance as he made it to the final round in 2019. That year, he won at Phoenix to push him to the championship at Homestead.

The 6 and 7 seeds are teammates Christian Eckes. and Ty Majeski. They may be the top 2 sleepers. Eckes had 7 top 8 finishes over the final 9 races run including 6 of the 7 in the top 6. Majeski had 7 top 7’s over the final 10 races himself including 6 of which in the top 5.

The 6 seed has marched to the championship round in 2 of the last 3 years while the 7 seed was there just last year too.

You also have a great story in Carson Hocevar who ended the regular season with 3 straight top 5 results and 4 top 6’s over the final 5 races. This is his 2nd straight playoff appearance. Between Eckes, Majeski and Hocevar, they combined to finish runner-up in 5 of the final 11 races of the regular season.

The 8 seed though has never made it to the Championship 4.

Neither has the 9 seed which this year is Grant Enfginer. This is his 4th playoff field he’s been a part of but I wonder how long his stay will be. While he has 21 playoff starts and 2 wins in them, he’s not won all year and has just 1 top 10 in the last 6. He did have 6 in the 7 races prior though including 3 of which in the top 3.

The 10th and final seed is 3-time champion Matt Crafton. He too backed his way in. He had 1 top 5 all season, a 5th place run in Darlington. He also only had 2 top 10’s over the final 7 regular season races. Oddly enough, despite 42 career playoff starts, he’s never won a playoff race. The final seed has made it to the final round once.

So who does what then?

1st round exit: Crafton, Enfinger

2nd round exit: Rhodes, Nemechek, Eckes, Majeski

Championship 4: #1 Zane Smith, #2 Chandler Smith, #5 Stewart Friesen, #8 Carson Hocevar

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