MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The biggest rivalry in the Truck Series this season had nothing to do with the guys behind the wheel.
Put this on the promotional poster: It’s engine vs. engine.
NASCAR has provided teams with cheaper, spec engines in an attempt to cut costs for teams. But some teams — notably a powerhouse like Kyle Busch Motorsports — decided to build engines in-house and aligned with a manufacturer.
NASCAR has fiddled with the engine rules throughout the season — most notably by sapping horsepower from the original equipment manufacturer engines — to the point where its NT1 spec engine had a decided horsepower advantage for the Truck Series playoff races.
That made it a no-brainer for the championship race. The manufacturer engines are out and specs are in for the four contenders.
“We would get slaughtered with an OEM engine,” Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said.
It should be even under the hoods for the title contenders in Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Brett Moffitt, Johnny Sauter, Noah Gragson and Justin Haley are racing for the championship.
Here’s a deeper look at the contenders:
Gragson is trying to win the championship in his final race for Kyle Busch Motorsports. The 20-year-old Gragson is making the move to the Xfinity Series, driving for JR Motorsports. Gragson will replace Elliott Sadler, who is set to retire.
Gragson has just one win but six poles in the No. 18 Toyota. He started first and finished second last week at Phoenix to finish 27 points above the elimination line. Gragson was the lone driver to make the championship field on points.
Gragson could join 2015 champion Erik Jones and 2017 champ Christopher Bell as KBM drivers to win the Truck championship. With crew chief Rudy Fugle, Gragson leads the series in stage wins (10), poles (six), laps led (591) and average starting position (4.7).
“I don’t know if I’m feeling excited, if I’m feeling nervous, if I feel the pressure,” Gragson said. “Really, I don’t know what I’m feeling. I guess it’s D, all of the above. But most importantly, I’m getting the chance to do something I’ve always dreamed of and that’s to race for a championship in the Truck Series.”
Haley has three wins, including a playoff victory at Texas that earned him an automatic spot in the championship field. The 19-year-old Haley has nine top-fives in the No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing.
Haley, teammates with Sauter at GMS, finished ninth at Homestead last season. He had 12 straight top-10 finishes with crew chief Kevin Bellicourt until he was forced out of the race last week at Phoenix with oil issues.
“I’ve got no pressure,” Haley said. “I wouldn’t say I don’t care how this weekend goes. But however this weekend goes, I’m going to be pretty OK with it because we’ve put ourselves with an opportunity to win the championship.”
Moffitt is on a tear after finishing second at Martinsville, third at Texas and then he took the checkered flag last week at Phoenix. Moffitt has five wins and 12 top-fives in the No. 16 Toyota for Hattori Racing Enterprises.
The 26-year-old Moffitt and crew chief Scott Zipadelli have held on to make a championship run through a tumultuous season that saw Hattori battle sponsorship woes and seem at times on the brink of missing races.
“As far as 2019 goes, I have no plans, I have no job and a championship would go a long way in that direction,” Moffitt said. “We have nine to 10 full-time employees and they have to work harder than anyone else we’re competing against, certainly in the final four. With everyone’s dedication to win a championship, I need to repay them the best I can.”
Sauter is driving for his second championship in three seasons after taking the 2016 crown. He has a series-high six wins and is the only driver in the field who has ever raced for the championship.
While most drivers use the series as a stepping stone toward a Cup ride, the 40-year-old Sauter is wrapping up his 15th season in trucks. He has 23 career wins and has finished runner-up in the season standings twice. He’s enjoyed a career year with crew chief Joe Shear Jr. in the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS Racing.
“I think if you come this far and you’ve had the season that we’ve had, to not be able to cap it off with a championship is definitely a disappointment,” Sauter said.