Matt Crafton and his No. 88 Serta / Menards Toyota team Friday night wrote the latest chapter in a memorable NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season with a late-chase fourth-place finish in the EnjoyIllinois.com 225 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Crafton started the race “wrecking loose” and hadn’t been too pleased with his Tundra all day. But crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner and his team put Crafton in position to make a late run from eighth with a two-position pickup on a pit stop under caution with 45 laps to go.
Crafton did the rest, beating all his closest championship contenders, which allowed him to open a 41-point advantage over defending series champion James Buescher with six races remaining this season.
“The truck definitely came to life at the end,” Crafton said on pit road after the race. “Every time that we’ve struggled at the beginning of the race, but to end like we did only shows how good this crew is.
“We never stop — we just keep working on it, working on it and working on it. We pitted (early) and we kind of got out of sequence just so we could work on the truck, and this Menards Toyota Tundra was very, very good right there at the end. I was kind of hoping we’d have a yellow and see what we could do with them.”
Truth be told, in his record 310th consecutive Truck Series start, Crafton was only too happy to leave Chicagoland with his 16th consecutive top-10 finish this season, a mark that was never really in jeopardy once his crew — which gained Crafton positions on pit road with virtually every stop — got into the game.
“I’m not happy with just finishing in the top-10, for sure — not with the guys I’ve got working around me,” Crafton said of his streaks, and the stretch run. “I’d be happy with finishing in the top-five, but definitely still not satisfied — without a doubt (because) I know this team, we can put some Ws (wins) in the left column.”
Crafton’s last “W” came at Kansas in April and he scored three consecutive top-five finishes, including one of two second places this season, right after that. It’s enough to make him think something special can happen in the next stretch of races, starting with Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sept. 28.
“At the end of the day, I can’t thank every one of these guys for all they did — awesome pit stops all night, same as ever,” Crafton said at Chicagoland. “I said we were so, so wicked loose early-on. But that thing, right there at the end, was really, really good.
“We changed so much stuff — air pressure, track bar, wedge — and just kept throwing stuff at it and they finally hit it at the end.”
That enabled Crafton not only to finish in front of his three closest championship rivals, Buescher, Ty Dillon and Jeb Burton — he was able to pass them in the stretch run to improve the points lead he’s held for the last 12 races. At one point, it looked like Buescher, in particular, was going to take another sizable chunk out of Crafton’s point lead as he struggled with his truck’s handling and nearly fell out of the top 20 while Buescher was solidly in the top-five.
“This team I’ve got never, ever thinks about giving up,” Crafton said. “So at the end of the day we’ve got to race smart for right now. But, if there’s three (races) to go, two to go — and we have that points (lead) — you’re going to see a different Matt Crafton.”
Crafton and his crew will get their next opportunity to extend their streaks at Las Vegas, where Crafton’s finished second three of the last four years and no worse than fifth since 2008. For sure he has no problem with his position in the large scheme of things.
“I’d rather be the one being chased, without a doubt,” Crafton said. “It’s definitely a lot of pressure, without a doubt. But I can’t thank these guys, and Duke and Rhonda Thorson (team owners). They give me the opportunity to drive this great Toyota Tundra.”