The first four races of the 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule have been “diabolical” for GMS Racing’s Tyler Ankrum. His best finish: 18th, last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
As all seasons do, Ankrum started off the year with great optimism after qualifying for the 2020 postseason, his first year with GMS Racing. However, he was the lone full-time GMS driver to not get to the winner’s circle, despite winning as a rookie in 2019 with David Gilliland Racing.
But through four races this year, Ankrum hasn’t even sniffed a victory. Currently, he ranks 27th in the championship standings, with an average finish of 25.2. That’s disappointing when running for one of the best Truck Series teams in the garage.
“Diabolical. It’s been a rodeo that’s for sure,” Ankrum told Jayski.com of his season. “I did not expect our season to start off this way.”
However, not all of the misfortune can be placed on the driver. In the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the California native hovered around 15th when he was involved in a late-race melee. The following week at the Daytona road course, it was an all-night struggle for the No. 26 truck. In the opening few laps, he hit a pile of standing water and drove straight into the tire barriers. Ankrum race inside the top 20, only to cut a left rear tire. On the next restart, he mowed through the field, but blew another rear tire and destroyed the battery box.
Even still, Ankrum was in position to salvage a respectable finish out of it when he was turned by Moffitt on a late restart because of an accordion effect.
“I possibly could have done the same thing as [Moffitt], so I wasn’t too butthurt about the situation,” Ankrum said. “It just sucked because we just clawed our way out of these holes that just kept on constantly getting dug for us, made our way back every single time and just didn’t prevail.”
That night was just a disappointing evening for team No. 26, when Ankrum believes — though not a road course ringer — he’s a solid road course racer.
“That was probably like one of the hardest gut wrenching days because all my teammates are up front,” he said. “I’m back here behind, just getting caught up in other people’s mistakes. I think I probably wrecked like six guys on the last lap because I was that mad. I was like, ‘I’m going, my bumper is a weapon.'”
In the next race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ankrum was running between 10th to 15th for the majority of the race, earning one point in the second stage. But again, a late-race restart hurt his chances of earning a reputable finish when his teammate Chase Purdy made contact with Jordan Anderson, who collided with the No. 26.
End result: Hard impact into the inside wall.
Most recently, the Truck Series went to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Having to start 30th, Ankrum was inside the top 20 by the time of the competition caution on lap 15. But this time, it was a driver error on pit road when the No. 26 was nipped for speeding on pit road.
Come the checkered flag, Ankrum could only rebound to 18th.
“That’s the most frustrating part, and that’s more demoralizing,” Ankrum said of his speeding penalty. “You have a pretty good truck, and you’ve been slowly but surely making your way up, probably going to get good points at the end of the race.
“It’s worse when it’s my fault that we run 18th. When we run 22nd and we were snakebitten, it’s like, ‘OK, you’ve got to take it for what it’s worth.’”
Compared to his past years of racing, Ankrum said he’s typically good at starting seasons off, but rather has a hard time closing them. Even in his K&N Pro Series East 2018 championship season, he won three races in a row over the summer months, only to finish the year with four straight results outside the top five.
But 2021 is reminiscent of 2017, when Ankrum began the year having a tough Speedweeks with his super late model in Florida. That year, he believes he wrecked a handful of times that week alone.
There is optimism, though. Ankrum referred to Justin Allgaier in the Xfinity Series, who started off this season with lackluster results. He put that to rest with a win at Atlanta, and is now locked into the playoffs.
Ankrum thinks he can do the same thing.
“My biggest problem right now is not starting up front,” he said. “[I’m] clawing from the start. You get caught up in someone else’s wreck, or you make a mistake on pit road and finish 18th. That’s probably where you’re going to be starting next week.”
Despite his poor start to the season, Ankrum is only 44 points below the cutline. Certainly, he’s not in a must-win scenario yet, even though the regular season is 25% over.
And it’s never too early to look at points.
“It’s still about points racing, not a lot has changed,” Ankrum said. “We’ve always been points racing since the inception of the playoff format. If you try to discount it, and say we have to go for the win, we’re going to throw this stage away, those are still important stage points.”
Without going into detail, Ankrum said GMS has been trying different setups this year. Still, Creed sits third in points with Smith in eighth. He also believes compared to 2020, the Toyotas have made a vast improvement aerodynamically, leading to big results on the racetrack.
But the young driver also knows it’s going to be difficult to win, because of the competitiveness of the Truck Series. On any given weekend, a new driver could win. That makes it harder to rebound from 27th in points.
“Going into my first Truck season, I thought I was Jeff Gordon,” Ankrum said. “I came out of it realizing I wasn’t because of seeing how competitive everyone was. But this year, seeing how it’s been for the first four races, I think the top 20 can go out and be competitive.”
Ankrum has full confidence that the No. 26 GMS team can turn the ship on the season. That begins this weekend on the inaugural truck race on the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track.
Admittedly so, Ankrum doesn’t have much dirt experience, though has tested a micro sprint the last couple of weeks. His mindset is the same entering Bristol as it is for every race: Win.
“If you’re going to the racetrack and don’t have the goal of intending on winning, just don’t even bother showing up,” he said. “The goal will be to go out and win.”
As for the remainder of the regular season, the series makes stops at Circuit of the Americas and Knoxville Speedway for the first time. It will hit Nashville Superspeedway for the first time in a decade and close out the regular season at Watkins Glen International, the first time trucks have raced on that circuit since 2000. Ankrum isn’t too worried about any of those new tracks on the Truck schedule.
His intentions are focused on leaving the first four races in the rear view.
Ankrum said, “We’re working on and talking about the things we want to improve on in order to get better and win races. I have no doubt that we can. We just have to focus on what we’re doing and not worry about anybody else.”