Matt Crafton was badly off-the-pace in Happy Hour practice Friday at Kansas Speedway, but his confidence in crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner and his ThorSport Racing crew was so great, Crafton said he was sure his team could dream up a set-up that would give them a chance at success with their No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Toyota in Saturday’s SFP 250.
About 20 hours later, Crafton and Joiner’s dream came true in Gatorade Victory Lane, as Crafton celebrated his third career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory — and the 12th career victory for ThorSport in its 18th year in the series.
“For sure, this is the fulfillment of a dream,” Crafton said. “If you would have asked me about this (Friday) I would’ve said I’d be happy with a top-10, as bad as that truck was — but it just shows what this whole organization is made of, with that they did from (Friday) to (Saturday).
“I can’t thank Menards enough, Toyota — and (owners) Duke and Rhonda Thorson. Doing it out of Sandusky, Ohio — everybody said (running a race team away from the Charlotte, N.C., area) can’t be done — and we’re making fools out of all the ones that said it can’t be done.”
With the victory, ThorSport kept alive its streak of being the top-finishing Toyota in all four races this season.
“It’s huge,” Crafton said amidst a confetti-strewn scene littered with spent Gatorade bottles. “Yesterday we were 18th on-average in the second practice and we were a 20th-place truck at best, to be honest.”
That was when Crafton made his dream-world comment — and in the 17-odd hours that followed, Joiner and his boys made the dream come true.
“They changed so much on this truck — you always hear people say it, but they changed four springs, sway bar, sway bar arms — I mean tons of stuff,” Crafton said. “There’s a bunch more stuff that they changed that would probably lose everybody, but they made a wholesale change and what that comes down to is teamwork and believing in each other and then going out there and doing it.”
Crafton, who made his 298th consecutive Truck Series start — extending the record he established a week before at Rockingham — never led the race under green until he took the lead for the final time, at lap 138 of 167, with a spectacular third-to-first move on the backstretch.
Before that, he didn’t seem to have a particularly competitive truck until Joiner worked his final bit of adjustable magic. Because once he got out front, Crafton seemed easily able to handle the Kyle Busch Motorsports duo of Joey Coulter and Darrell Wallace Jr., whom he passed in one stunning stroke, for the win.
“The show was so awesome — it was a great race,” Crafton said of the last dozen laps, when Coulter stalked Crafton, but could never get to his bumper. “My spotter told me where Joey was, and he had a very, very fast truck. I think track position was everything and it was whoever got out front.”
At several points Crafton narrowly dodged becoming collateral damage in one of the 11 caution periods that occurred in the race. But that definitely didn’t mean the outcome was gained easily, as Coulter stalked Crafton, waiting for a mistake that never came.
“I was driving 120 percent in those closing laps,” Crafton said. “I knew (Coulter) was there and he had a very, very fast truck. It’s awesome to race with Joey and I know that he wasn’t going to be one of these drivers that was going to go in there and do anything stupid and run into the back of me or try to do a dive bomb and try to take me out or do anything like that.
“He’s a great racecar driver as well. He could get a good run on me down the straightaway and suck me up in the draft and I just kept moving around down the straightaway just trying to break the draft so he couldn’t get that run.”
The win had an even bigger meaning for Joiner, who in his 26th race as a crew chief, made his biggest mark for ThorSport yet by scoring his first victory.
“It’s my 26th race as a crew chief for ThorSport, I was born on June 26 and 26 was my grandfather’s number, my dad’s number — it’s a big deal in my family, the 26,” an emotional Joiner said in Victory Lane. “So this is just really cool. I’m just so proud of the guys on this team, and I’m thankful for the opportunity Duke and Rhonda have given me.”
Joiner has a West Coast company that builds racecar shock absorbers and through it has a lengthy history with Crafton — including years spent building the shocks for Crafton’s trucks before he relocated to Ohio to work with his team.
“I’ve known Matt for a long time, ” Joiner said. “He’s probably one of the best friends I’ve ever had and I’m proud of him, I’m proud of all these guys. From what we did (Friday), we’ve come so far… But we never throw in the towel, we never give up. I think I probably got less sleep (Friday) night than I did when my newborn son arrived.
“We threw everything at this thing and I’m pretty excited for this whole team. We have to thank John Menard, Paul (Menard) and all the people with Menards who are so cool to us and who have let us do this for so long. I hope we can do this for a long time and win a bunch of these things, because it feels so good.”
Joiner’s impact might be even more impressive via statistical analysis. Crafton’s win broke a 39-race winless streak, but in the 40 races since he last won, at Iowa in July 2011, Crafton has 12 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. That’s championship-level consistency.
With the win, which made Crafton the 13th different winner in as many Truck Series races at Kansas, ThorSport’s veteran leapfrogged rookie Jeb Burton and moved into second in the championship standings, 12 points behind ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter, who finished fifth Saturday.
The series is off until round five, at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday, May 17 as part of the Sprint All-Star Race weekend. Crafton won at Charlotte in 2008 for his first series victory.