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Commentary: Can Friesen ever win a truck race?

Commentary: Can Friesen ever win a truck race?

May 10/19 (GRW): Ever since Stewart Friesen arrived in the NASCAR truck series four years ago, we have been looking for big things from him. Race wins for sure - maybe even championship – but, so far in 55 starts, he has been winless. After the kerfuffle this weekend which saw him blow a solid shot at the race win, you have to start to wonder if this team is up to the job. Is the problem the driver, the crew chief, or the pit crew?

Friesen is an accomplished short-track driver who calls Niagara-on-the-Lake home. He has been racing in the NASCAR truck series (now called the Gander Outdoors series) off and on for the past four years – full time for second season now. He is an accomplished driver, winning lots of races in upstate New York and environs and he, coming to the truck series, he has clearly demonstrated his top-notch ability as a race driver. Indeed, he has done so well in the trucks that many people, including veteran observers like Todd Bodine, keep expecting him to start winning in that NASCAR series.

But, despite his obvious ability to go fast in his race truck, he has yet to win a race. After his disappointing result in this week’s truck race in Kansas, I have to wonder if he will ever break through. This week looked like it was going to be his week to finally score a truck series win. Although he qualified tenth quickest, he had taken the lead by lap 9 of the 167-lap race. After that he continued to run at or near the front, winning both of the first two Stages.

This should have been a good omen that he was on his way to the race win but there were a couple of disturbing caveats. On the first restart on lap 30, he lost the lead to Brett Moffitt, the defending series champion. He was soon back in the lead but when the first Stage ended, both Grand Enfinger and Moffitt beat him out of the pits – and he was still there on the next restart on lap 60. It took him ten laps to regain the race lead – a lead he held until the end of Stage 2.

This time he beat everyone else out of the pits and took the restart from the lead position – but Enfinger, who had lined up on the low groove below him, jumped out ahead and he led for the next 36 laps.

Then everything went wrong for Friesen. On lap 125, Enfinger came into the pits under green to make his last scheduled pit stop. Given that the first driver to pit would gain an advantage on fresh tires, everyone followed suit. A lap later Friesen pitted.

Pit stops for the Canadian have to be a worrisome time. Last year at Michigan, the fortuitous timing of a yellow flag set him up to be the only truck on the lead lap – able to cruise home to a certain win – when a mistake by a crew member caused him to be penalized and his shot at the win evaporated. Even today, earlier in the race, he had lost two positions in a pit stop cycle. Now, everything was on the table – he needed a good, fast pit stop.

Then it happened. The first two tires in what was obviously a planned four-tire pit stop had been changed. When the jack dropped, Friesen hit the gas, and the truck shot out of the pit stall with only two fresh tires and half of the required fuel load. His chances at the win looked doomed.

Indeed, as it turned out, he was done for. He took the restart in the lead closely pursued by Enfinger and Moffitt – but he seemed able to hold them off – by a tiny margin. The those two got together and brought out another yellow – falling back out of contention. This gave Friesen the opportunity to save some gas. Back to green and five laps later there was another yellow for a spinning truck. Friesen was still in the lead but the others behind would be catching up to him under the yellow. More gas saved. Friesen took the final green in the lead and held on just ahead of Ross Chastain. Chastain now seemed to have the measure of him, staying within half a second as the laps counted down.

Then, with three laps still left to go, Friesen slowed – out of gas – and he coasted to a stop finishing in 15th place.

Whose fault was this? It looked like Friesen had ignored crew chief Trip Bruce’s command for four tires. Friesen seemed to think he had never been told. He said afterwards, “ I didn’t know we were taking four (tires). I thought for sure we were taking two. Just a lot of silence on the radio. That’s it.”

Since he arrived in the truck series, I have been paying attention to Friesen. He clearly has a strong resume in the short-track racing circles in upstate New York – and he has shown good speed in the truck series. But he seems to have trouble not losing positions during pit stops and on restarts – two of the most important elements in NASCAR-style racing. Last year’s loss at Michigan was due to a crew member’s rookie mistake. The loss at Kansas this week was due to a miscommunication between the driver and the crew chief.

The team owner, Chris Larsen, clearly has deep pockets. If I were in his shoes, I would seriously consider making a big change in the truck team. He won’t fire Friesen because the team is built around him. So that leaves the crew chief – even if he won a championship 11 years ago with Johnny Benson. And I would be looking at getting a better, top notch over-the-wall pit crew; you can rent or borrow such a pit crew from some Cup teams. And I would try to find someone to coach Friesen on making better restarts in NASCAR races.

Or you can just keep on doing things the same, while the bad feelings fester and Friesen becomes more frustrated at not winning. I wonder if this week’s mess may not be the start of the end for the relationship between Larsen (Halmar) and Friesen.

-30-

 

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