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Putting the Gander Trucks Series playoff picture in perspective before Michigan

With only six races remaining to set the Gander Truck Series playoff field, there’s good reason to expect intense racing at Michigan International Speedway.

With only six races remaining to set the 10-driver NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoff field, there is good reason to expect tight and intense racing in Friday night‘s Henry Ford Health System 200 (6 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Michigan International Speedway. But then again, putting it all on the line is the very essence of this series — as the championship driver standings will indicate.

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Hattori Racing Enterprises driver Austin Hill is not only the series standings leader — by 43 points over Ben Rhodes — he is also the defending Michigan race winner, earning a .125-second victory over Sheldon Creed last summer in an overtime thriller. Hill brings a 2020 series-best nine top-10 finishes and a series-high 186 laps led to Michigan.

All three of those drivers — Hill, Rhodes and Creed — return to the fast 2-miler assured of their playoff opportunities, but that‘s not the case for a pair of otherwise heavy championship favorites who are still in need of a victory or a major points boost.

Defending series champion Matt Crafton punched his playoff ticket two weeks ago, winning at Kansas Speedway, but a pair of annual championship contenders — former series champion Johnny Sauter and 2019 Championship Four competitor Stewart Friesen — are still below the playoff cutline.

Sauter is ranked 12th, 53 points behind 10th-place Todd Gilliland. Sauter, the 2016 Gander Truck Series champion, won at Michigan in 2014 and was race runner-up in 2018. The driver of the No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford finished 12th there last year.

Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota, is ranked 14th — 71 points behind the cutoff line. He has a pair of career-best eighth-place finishes in three starts at Michigan. His best showing this season is fourth place at Texas Motor Speedway. He finished 27th and 34th in the two series‘ most recent two races at Kansas.

Tyler Ankrum, the 18-year old considered one of the top up-and-coming drivers in the sport, is ranked 11th in the championship standings coming to Michigan, only 22 points behind 10th-place Gilliland and 27 points behind ninth-place Derek Kraus. Ankrum was leading at Michigan with four laps remaining last summer when he was collected in a nine-truck crash that forced overtime.

Gilliland‘s best Michigan finish is fifth in 2018. He led 14 laps last year but was also caught in the same late race crash as Ankrum. This will be the 18-year old Kraus‘s Michigan debut.

Beyond positioning themselves among the playoff favorites, several of the highest-ranked drivers in the standings are still looking for that first victory of the season to send them into title contention on a high note.

Hill (Kansas), Grant Enfinger (Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway), Creed (Kentucky Speedway) and now Crafton (Kansas) are the only series regulars with victories. Meaning six of the 10 playoff positions will be filled based on points standings unless a new — championship eligible driver — wins over the next six races.

Former series champion Brett Moffitt is among those seemingly secure in the championship standings but still looking for a victory guarantee. His two wins at Michigan (2016 and 2018) make him the winningest driver in Friday night‘s field. He has finished in the top five in three of his four Michigan starts. He is fifth in the points standings.

Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford, can also be counted among the highly motivated this weekend. His eight top-10 finishes this season are second only to Hill‘s nine. The 23-year old Kentucky native has a pair of top-10 finishes at Michigan, including a best of sixth place twice (2016 and 2018). He was 23rd last year.