MIAMI, Fla – It’s NASCAR Championship Media Day in South Florida, but it doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to the 2020 season. On Thursday, we saw three separate driver announcements for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
The first one was that Tyler Ankrum will shift over from DGR Crosely to GMS Racing for next season. Ankrum, made the playoffs in his first year in the series following a win in Kentucky back in July to go along with two other top five finishes in his No. 17 Toyota and eight top 10’s.
Ankrum, joins Brett Moffitt and Sheldon Creed with the organization.
Then, Kyle Busch Motorsports made their long awaited driver announcements. Canadian Raphael Lessard will replace Todd Gilliland in the No. 4 Toyota while Christian Eckes will replace Harrison Burton in the No. 18 Toyota.
Lessard, made five NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series starts in 2019, three of those coming with KBM. Across his five starts he posted two top-10 finishes while recording an average starting position of 10.4 and average finish of 11.1. Lessard’s strongest run came in his final start of the season when he was running inside the top five with under 30 laps remaining before getting spun and relegated to a 12th-place finish.
In addition to a limited schedule in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series this season, Lessard posted 83 laps led, two top-five and three top-10 finishes across three ARCA Menards Series starts and one win, one top-five and two top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. His Pinty’s Series victory came at his hometown track, Autodrome Chaudiere in Vallee-Jonction, Quebec, on June 29 when he led a race-high 153 laps en route to the sentimental win.
“I’ve been working really hard the last few years to put myself in position to drive full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series — so this opportunity is a dream come true,” Lessard said. “I can’t thank Kyle and everyone at KBM, Toyota and TRD enough for having the confidence to put me in their truck and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of my parents and everyone that has invested in getting me to this point. Being able to drive for such a great organization in one of NASCAR’s top three series is going to be awesome and I’m going to work hard on and off the race track to learn as much as I can to get better every race.”
“We’ve watched Raphael grow as both a driver and a person since joining our Super Late Model program in 2018 and we’re looking forward to being a part of his continued progression as he graduates to a full-time role in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series next year,” owner Kyle Busch said. “Similar to Erik Jones and Christopher Bell before him, Raphael joined our Super Late Model program and immediately won some big races. Then, when given a part-time Truck Series schedule, they all proved capable of running up front and earned the right to compete full time. Erik and Christopher went on to win races and a championship in trucks, now Raphael has the opportunity to continue to follow their blueprint.”
“Raphael has continued to prove himself as an outstanding race car driver,” said Jack Irving, Senior Manager, Commercial Director, Toyota Racing Development. “He has shown poise behind the wheel and has achieved solid results in the opportunities he’s been presented with thus far. We look forward to watching him grow and achieve even more with this full-time opportunity in 2020 behind the wheel of a Kyle Busch Motorsports Tundra.”
Lessard won two marquee events driving KBM’s famed No. 51 Super Late Model in 2018; the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and the Red Bud 400 ARCA/CRA Super Series race at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway. Overall in 16 starts for KBM split across the CARS Super Late Model Tour, the Southern Super Series and the ARCA/CRA Super Series, the talented teenager posted two wins, three poles, seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes last season. He also competed in the prestigious Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. where he started seventh, led 68 laps and was in a position to contend for the win before a fluid leak ended his day with nine laps remaining.
Sponsor and crew chief announcements for Lessard are forthcoming as well as announcements on the rest of the KBM driver lineup for 2020. While Eckes knows that his sponsor will be Safelight, his crew chief too is unknown.
Eckes, 19, will be looking to deliver KBM a seventh NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series owner’s championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway Friday night, as he makes his eighth start of the 2019 season behind the wheel of the No. 51 Mobil 1 Tundra. The New York native has produced three poles, 64 laps led, two top-five and three top-10 finishes across seven starts in his second partial schedule for the organization. In 2018, he produced three top-10 finishes across his four Gander Trucks starts.
Eckes captured the ARCA Menards Series championship this season after recording four wins, two poles, 400 laps led, 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes resulting in an average finish of 4.8 across 19 starts. He missed one start early in the season due to illness. Overall in 46 career ARCA starts since 2016, Eckes has posted seven wins, four poles, 1094 laps led, 23 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes with an average starting spot of 5.3 and average finishing position of 6.9.
“Returning to KBM to compete full-time for a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship with the support of Safelite AutoGlass and Toyota is an opportunity that I’ve worked my whole life for and I’m ready to take advantage of it,” Eckes said. “Being around the Truck Series the last few seasons, I’ve been able to see firsthand how much effort Safelite puts into their racing program and I’m excited to represent them not only on the track, but in the communities that we race in.”
“Christian has won races and a championship in the ARCA Series and we feel like he’s capable of doing the same driving for us full-time in the Truck Series next year,” owner Kyle Busch said. “He’s shown speed while running a part-time schedule for us the past couple of seasons — he’s won poles, led laps and been in a position to win a few races. We feel like it’s just a matter of time before he puts everything together and starts winning at this level.”
We’re excited to continue our partnership with Safelite — the outpouring of support that they provide our organization is second to none in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. The number of associates and guests on hand each week cheering on our team is amazing and they also do great job of getting our drivers involved with charitable initiatives in the community.”
“We’re very excited to welcome Christian to the Safelite family,” said Safelite AutoGlass Senior Vice President Garth Beck. “We know he is a championship-caliber driver with many strong races under his belt. His ARCA Menards Series championship win this year, along with his impressive progress in the 2019 NASCAR Truck Series, proves he is a great fit to drive the Safelite Toyota Tundra for the 2020 season. We are very much looking forward to cheering him on to victory next year.”
“We are excited to see Christian full-time in the NASCAR Truck Series next season,” said Jack Irving, Senior Manager, Commercial Director, Toyota Racing Development. “It has been thrilling to watch the growth of Christian behind the wheel these past couple of seasons. With his success in the ARCA Menards Series this past year, this is the next logical move for Christian’s continued development towards what we hope is a long career in NASCAR with Toyota.”
With Burton moving up to replace Christopher Bell in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for 2020, where does that leave Gilliland? The answer is simple – DGR/Crosley.
While nothing has been announced, why wouldn’t Gilliland’s dad pick him up to drive for his team? The younger Gilliland won at Martinsville a couple of weeks ago and has scored 12 top five finishes and 25 top 10’s in 47 career Truck Series starts.