For Matt Crafton, a long road to Truck royalty
November 07, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Before a teenaged Matt Crafton made his debut on NASCAR's Southwest Tour at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., his father brought him to the half-mile track to test. The younger Crafton had come up on go-karts and mini-sprints, flat-out vehicles he could drive much deeper into the corners, and the learning curve was evident. Wheeling the more powerful late model car, he once spun out to such an extent that an ambulance on standby fired up its whirling red lights.
An onlooker turned to Danny Crafton and uttered words that would prove prophetic. " 'You get him under control, you're going to have something there,' " the elder Crafton remembered. "He just caught on, and away it went."
These days, Matt Crafton's racing career is defined by control. "Mr. Consistency," rookie Ryan Blaney called a driver who's finished outside the top 10 just twice this Camping World Truck Series season, and needs only to start the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch a first national-series NASCAR championship that would be a testament to patience and perseverance. The 37-year-old Californian finished fifth Friday at Phoenix, and leads Ty Dillon by 46 points.
The title would be a fitting reward to a veteran racer who came up the hard way, practicing on old tires and getting started in hand-me-down cars. He didn't come from the kind of family that could fund their son's racing career completely out of pocket. They built their own chassis out of raw tubing, fine-tuned their own engines, bargained for tires when they had to. It was a gradual climb that received a major boost in 2000 when Crafton won the Southwest Tour title, and was signed by the same ThorSport Racing team that fields his No. 88 Toyota today.
"I remember one thing my dad always said: 'You run good enough this week, you'll get a practice set of tires next week,' " Crafton remembered. "There were plenty of races, especially when I first started in the deal, where if you didn't do good enough, you were going to have to practice on your 100-lap tires, and then you get one set of tires to qualify and then race 100 laps. We did that quite a bit back in the Southwest Tour days."
His father remembers it well. "We had nothing," Danny Crafton said. When Crafton was closing in on his Southwest Tour title, his dad struck an agreement for tires, in return for a guarantee that his son would deliver the championship. "That was a pretty gutsy call there, but I knew we'd win," he said. "… It's your son. I wouldn't trade that for anything. That was the way we did it. We didn't have anything, and we just worked."
Growing up in the central California town of Tulare, the younger Crafton worked on his father's late model and spotted for his dad while racing smaller cars of his own. Then came the day in 1996 at Altamont Raceway Park when Danny Crafton crashed on a makeup qualifying lap, injuring his pelvis and leaving him unable to drive. The next race on the Southwest Tour was at Mesa Marin, and a different Crafton would be in the car. After one test, Matt was tossed into a highly competitive regional series that would prove a breeding ground for Ron Hornaday Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. It wasn't unusual for 50 or more cars to show up, although only 20 made the main event.
That was the case when the 19-year-old Crafton strapped in at Mesa Marin. He won the B-Main to advance to the final, and scored a top-10 his first time out. The next event was at Sonoma Raceway, and Danny Crafton tried to return to the car. "He went out there and ran the first practice and got out of the car and he was white, he was hurting so bad," Matt remembered. Danny asked his son -- do you want to drive instead?
Matt remembers his response: "Hell yeah," he said, even though he was woefully inexperienced at shifting gears. "It was very adventurous," Matt said, smiling. "Let's just say I was off course a few times that day."
Regardless, he was off and running. Each passing season brought a little more success and a little more financial help, and by 2000 Crafton was battling Busch at the top of the Southwest Tour, which no longer operates under the NASCAR banner. But back then, given the talent and the car counts involved, a Southwest Tour crown could open the door to bigger things. Every weekend was a dogfight, particularly races at Phoenix, which was that circuit's Daytona.
"It was gnarly," Crafton remembered in the Phoenix garage area. "The last year I was here (on the Southwest Tour), 2000 when I won the championship, there were 70 cars. It was honestly the best racing. Those cars were a blast to drive."
And Crafton drove them well enough to get noticed. As the 2000 season neared its close, Crafton had a healthy points lead and began to field offers from national-series teams. One was from Duke and Rhonda Thorson, who flew Crafton to ThorSport headquarters in Sandusky, Ohio, and offered him a contract on the spot. The relationship between Crafton and the Thorsons would remain strong even after the driver left three years later for a short-lived stint with Kevin Harvick Inc. When that ended after one season, Crafton knew where he was headed.
"I still talked to Duke every week, every two weeks, even when I drove for Harvick, because we became so close during those three years," Crafton said. "When I split with Harvick, I had the opportunity to go other places. And people are like, 'Why are you going back there?' I sat down with Duke, and he said, 'You know what it takes. What do we need to do differently? We're going to do it.' I basically came in with a list of things, and he said, 'I can't buy it all now, but every year we're going to add another piece of the puzzle.' Basically, that’s what it's come down to."
Now Crafton is on the brink of delivering the two-truck operation its first title, and he's doing it with a degree of control that's become his hallmark. If there's a knock against Crafton, it's that he's won just three times in his 13-year Truck Series career, including a victory at Kansas this season. Compare that to ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter, who has three wins this year alone. But Crafton's driving style harkens back to his roots, to the days when tires and cars weren't always easy to come by, and he had to take care of everything he had.
He's a long way from those days, with a series-record 314 consecutive starts behind him, and particularly now with a championship so near at hand. But those days have never left him.
"I've never had everything given to me," said Crafton, who finished second in the series in 2009. "I've always had to take care of what I had, from when I was a kid racing go-karts to micro-midgets to late models. You go out there and tear it up, you don't get to race next week. I guess it teaches you to take care of your stuff a little bit more. Yes, maybe if I were more aggressive and a little more wild, maybe I could have won a few more races. But at the same time, I might have been out of a job if the owner says, 'This guy tears up too much stuff.' That's just the way I was raised, to take care of your stuff."
It's a style that's produced a ridiculously good run of top-10 finishes, and earned the respect of other competitors. "Part of it is hard work, and really being smart in the race car and not putting yourself in a bad position to get wrecked," Blaney said. "Saying, 'Hey, I'd rather get ninth or 10th than wrecked going for fourth,' and that just speaks a lot to how patient he is."
Danny Crafton, who now oversees the late model program for David Gilliland's 13-year-old son, has seen it evolve from the beginning, from that first test at Mesa Marin to where Matt is today. The younger Crafton badly wanted to settle matters at Phoenix, the marquee facility of his youth, but will have to wait until the season finale to make it official. But whenever it happens, both Craftons know it will be special. Because they know how it all started.
"I think about it every day," Danny Crafton said. "Coming from that little town in California, we got here."