Matt Crafton finished fifth in his No. 88 Splash / Menards Toyota Friday night in the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway and in the process all but claimed his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers’ championship — leaving only ThorSport Racing’s quest for the series’ owners’ championship in question.
Crafton had his series-best 19th top-10 finish in 21 races this season on a night in which Toyota clinched its sixth Truck Series manufacturers’ title in its 10th year racing in the series. He now only has to take the green flag next Friday night in the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway after he finished the PIR race 46 points ahead of Ty Dillon, who finished one spot in front of Crafton to leap over defending series champion James Buescher in the standings.
“I think I’m alright with that,” said Crafton, who was grinning a lot after he exited his Tundra on pit road. “It’s going to feel damn good to go to Homestead and forget about everything and race like hell.”
But the owners’ title is another matter for ThorSport owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson, who already have two major stock car titles in hand via the drivers’ and owners’ championships Frank Kimmel won last month with ThorSport’s Ansell / Menards Toyota in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards, plus the drivers’ title Crafton will claim.
ThorSport came into the Phoenix race with a 32-point lead in the owners’ championship over Kyle Busch Motorsports. But KBM’s Erik Jones led the most laps Friday night then won the race with a stunning pass of another impressive youngster, Ross Chastain, with just nine laps left.
Thus, ThorSport’s lead going to South Florida for NASCAR’s championship weekend is 23 points. Crafton, by finishing 18th or better at Homestead can claim ThorSport’s fourth 2013 championship even if KBM owner/driver Kyle Busch equals Jones’ PIR accomplishment at Homestead — winning and leading the most laps, worth the maximum 48 points.
The Thorsons’ odds would go up if Busch fell down the finishing order.
“It’s beyond gratifying to win this championship, especially for Duke and Rhonda and ThorSport — and for Menards — who have all meant so much to my career,” Crafton said. “But our work’s not finished. We have one more battle on our hands and I’m confident, with what my team’s accomplished already this season, we’ll be equal to the challenge at Homestead.”
Menards, the Midwest home improvement store chain that had previously won an IndyCar championship with three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, had never won a stock car championship prior to this season, its 13th backing ThorSport. It, too, now has three.
Crafton’s phenomenally consistent and competitive season — he’s the only series driver to have completed all 3,243 laps raced in 2013 — has also been marked by competently overcoming challenges. And Friday offered some more of those.
Crafton started the race ninth and in 150 laps was never scored outside the top 10. But that wasn’t without a couple scares.
“I wish we were a few more spots ahead,” Crafton said ruefully of his finish. “But we just had a brake problem all night. I could run about 15 laps and would lose like 90 percent of my brakes and I would have to pump and pump and as soon as I came off Turn 4, I would probably pump the brake pedal 10 times by the time I’d get into (Turn) 1.
“I could run hard for about five laps, then I was done — I was a sitting duck. I would have to lift just past the start/finish line. We did what we had to do.”
Crafton actually picked up positions after several of the six restarts in the race and really never lost many positions. But the brakes were a challenge and in the end, prevented Crafton from making any aggressive moves on Dillon that might have presented the possibility of a Phoenix clinch, which would’ve required a 49-point lead.
“We came here to do what we’ve done all year — just race our butt off,” Crafton said. “We were three-wide and I was on the outside going three-wide and was thinking ‘this probably wasn’t a smart thing.’ But to heck with it, we were three-wide doing whatever we needed to do to get a position.
“But I was scared because I didn’t have any brakes.”
That was nothing compared to what Crafton felt while circulating under caution with less than 15 laps to go. A striking hammer — basically a foot-long miniature sledgehammer used for emergency bodywork — had apparently fallen out of a truck but was on the racetrack.
The FOX Sports 1 TV coverage plainly showed several trucks ride around or over it… Until Crafton’s yellow Tundra passed by and the hammer was gone! “I was real, real scared,” Crafton said of his concern, for the second time in the night. “Whoever blew a tire and had all that debris — I ran over something and I felt it hit the right front and I was going, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if that’s a piece of metal.’
“I didn’t say anything (on the in-truck radio), I just sweated.”
Without cause, it turned out, because on the final restart, at lap 141 with 10 laps left, Crafton continued to keep pace with Dillon, with high hopes for a better finish, but in the back of his mind, a greater comfort.
“I wanted to go fight with Ty (Dillon) and it would have been cool to lock the whole deal up (Friday) night, but like I said all we have to do is start Homestead. I can’t thank these guys — Menards, Toyota Tundra — can’t thank them enough.”
But Crafton finally revealed the starkest relief of his championship drive in a season in which no one but a ThorSport driver ever led the standings — from Johnny Sauter winning the season’s first two races to Crafton leading after the last 19.
“Just being able to sleep, that’s the coolest thing (about virtually clinching),” Crafton said. “I’m not going to lie, for the last month-and-a-half, it’s been tough.”