As trucks turn to Texas, Crafton's time is now
October 31, 2013, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Racing for points?
That's not Matt Crafton's style.
It certainly isn't how he built up a lofty 51-point lead in the Camping World Truck Series standings over defending champion James Buescher -- a win and a heavy series-leading 17 top-10s take the credit there -- and he doesn't plan on changing his strategy a bit for the final three races of the season, starting with Friday's WinStar World Casino 350 (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1).
"This is our 20th race and we just have to keep doing what we're doing and not just sit there and points-race," Crafton said Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway. "I feel good, without a doubt. Like I said, we still have a lot to do. I want to win at least two more races. It'd be great. If we won another race, it'd put an exclamation point on the season and we've done very good; we've done really well as a team and I can’t complain about a whole lot."
Of course not. It'd be hard to complain about anything, really, given how far ahead he is in the standings, how well he usually fares at the remaining three tracks (Texas, Phoenix and Homestead) and how a Martinsville finish of 17th -- brilliant, given he was caught up in the Ty Dillon/Kevin Harvick mess -- was his only finish worse than 11th all season.
Despite all this, though, Crafton is very much aware of the fact that his longtime-in-the-making first title isn't quite sealed up yet.
"Anything can happen, honestly. Totally anything can happen," Crafton said. "Especially the way the new points system is, you can lose so many points, so quick. And everybody says 'Oh, you've got a huge lead, 51 points' but at the end of the day I can lose 40 in one race if we were to wreck early and they were to win the race so we just have to go in and take that approach that we've taken to get here."
Having spent the better part of 13 years searching for his first series championship, it was only a matter of time before the 37-year-old Crafton -- who's been running a truck full-time since 2001 -- broke through to put himself in position to win it all, this late in the season. Perhaps his best chance came in 2009, when he finished runner-up (or as he called it, "bridesmaid" to Ron Hornaday Jr., trailing 187 points under the old system. He finished fourth the following year, eighth in 2011, and 2012 looked to be trending ever downward as well, putting himself in an early 11th-place hole five races in after making the move to Toyota.
But then it all started to click.
"Last year, we switched manufacturers to Toyota and we knew it was going to be a little bit of a learning curve without a doubt, but we didn't know it was going to be quite as big of a learning curve as it actually ended up being," he said. "The first two-thirds of the season, we struggled. We were mired back in 15th and 20th in points as teammates and as the season went on, we just kept learning what the Toyota Tundras needed, especially on these mile-and-a-half race tracks. I had a brand-new crew chief, brand-new manufacturer and he had to learn about the trucks and we had to learn about everything with these things. With the last third of the races, about five to go, we led pretty much a lap or a few laps at each of those races and we've just carried that little bit of momentum into 2013."
His late-season recovery netted a sixth-place series finish. The ball hasn't stopped rolling.
Overall, it's been more than a successful season for Crafton. It's been career-making. He's run a trio of NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet -- his first-ever appearance at that level -- and has fared extremely well, starting each race (twice at Kentucky and once at Chicago) in the top 10 and notching a pair of third-place finishes and another top-10. He'll be back in the No. 88 Tundra for 2013 but hopes to get more Nationwide shots next season. For now, he's looking to not only put his name in the books with a championship of his own, but bring one home for his owner Duke Thorson as well.
"We still have an owners' championship -- a heated owners' championship. Kyle (Busch is 15) points behind us. At the end of the day, I don't want to sit up there on stage (at the awards banquet) by myself without my owner. He's the one that gave me the opportunity to be where I am and I want him up on stage with me. I don't want Kyle up there with me either, though. We're friends and he said 'Hey maybe we'll be on stage together.' And I'm like 'No, I don't want to be on stage with you.' I want the guy who's given me the opportunity to be there."
Busch, who is also tangled up in a heated Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race, will also be racing in Friday's Truck Series event. Crafton certainly has his hopes set high in the owners' championship and will be trying to hold off Busch for another three races, but his eye is still heavily set on the driver standings.
"You look at the points and say, 'OK, this is how far we're ahead' but you try not to dwell on it too much. You've got to keep doing what you're doing. But you're out there and you're racing and you're racing hard and you put your helmet on and when they drop the green if that No. 31 truck (of Buescher) or that 3 truck (of Ty Dillon) is around me, and we're out front or they're right behind me or right ahead of us, you're thinking 'OK, at least we're not going to lose too many' or 'We're going to gain some points on them'. At the end of the day, that's on the back of your mind. If anybody tells you different, they're lying."