Matt Crafton 2013 year in review
December 09, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
How one wonderful week in the spring put Crafton on a championship path
This is the first in a series of 2013 Camping World Truck Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com.
Matt Crafton's march to his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship had two distinct turning points -- one at the track, one far from it, but both in the span of one whirlwind week in the spring.
Both were career-altering, giving Crafton all the momentum he'd need for the remaining seven months of the season, allowing him to virtually clinch his first title a week before the 2013 finale. Remarkable consistency and reliability were the hallmarks of his campaign, but the two biggest moments came courtesy of six crazy days in April.
On the track, Crafton soared on April 20 at Kansas Speedway to what would be his only victory of the season, jumping from third to first in the points standings to secure a lead he'd hold the rest of the way. Off the track just six days later, Crafton and his wife, Ashley, welcomed their first child -- daughter Elladee -- into the world.
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"I'd consider that a pretty good good-luck charm, wouldn't you?" Crafton joked Nov. 18, after the annual awards banquet for the Truck and NASCAR Nationwide Series in Miami Beach. The birth, and the newfound perspective that it brought, was what touched off emotions during Crafton's heartfelt acceptance speech.
"I don't want to say she made a huge difference in my racing. My racing is your guys -- I have a great, great group of guys around me now," Crafton said. "At the same time, it's made me a better person. It's made me calmer. I'm not going to lie, sometimes I can be a little bit of a hothead, but she's made me calmer. When you have your bad days and you're going to drag it on for two or three days, when you get back to your motorhome or you get back to your house and you get to see her, it changes everything. When she smiles at you, she doesn't know how bad of a day you've had. She makes your day all better."
The season was full of better days for Crafton, in part because his newly expanded family of three was never too far away. The 37-year-old driver said he drove his own motorhome to 18 of the season's 22 races -- including the inaugural stop at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Ontario -- to have his wife and daughter close by.
The other constant presence was performance, both from the driver and his No. 88 ThorSport Racing team. Crafton opened the season with an astounding streak of 16 consecutive top-10 finishes, breaking Terry Cook's all-time record for consecutive starts in the series along the way in the third race of the year. He completed the season with another statistical feat, finishing on the lead lap in every race to go a perfect 3,391 out of 3,391 in laps completed.
"I had no idea until Friday night (after the season finale) that we did that, to be honest," Crafton said. "That is awesome. Two years ago, we came up two laps short, I guess. This year, to be able to win the championship and run every lap … we took flak because we won one race this year, but I can promise you, we had a lot better trucks the last seven races capable of winning races."
The durability is what allowed Crafton to build a lead in the standings that reached a season-high of 57 points with four events remaining after a race of attrition at Talladega Superspeedway. He said he learned from Jimmie Johnson -- a six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and a man familiar with holding championship leads -- that the pressure in maintaining a larger advantage was often more difficult than being in a tight points race.
"It tore my guts up. I had to race hard, but I had to race smart," Crafton said. "Like Jimmie had told me, it's a lot easier to race when you've got a three-, four-, five-, 10-point gap on somebody because you've got to race as hard as you can. You've got to take those chances. That's why I think we could've won more races, just because I had to protect at that point. You don't want to lose and blow that huge lead."
Days before the season-ending race, Crafton signed a contract extension, ensuring that he'd return to Duke and Rhonda Thorson's successful, Ohio-based racing operation. Crafton explored the Nationwide Series in 2013, notching top-10 finishes in all three starts with Richard Childress' No. 33 team. But while he said he's had offers to move up to the Sprint Cup or Nationwide level, Crafton said he'd prefer to remain in a contending ride in what he often refers to as the most competitive racing in NASCAR.
Staying put also means staying loyal to Thorson, who has fielded Crafton's trucks for all but one of his 13 years in the series.
"He always told me, you stick with me, I'll stick with you and we'll win races and we'll win a championship," Crafton said. "That's what he's done. He's been a man of his word."