Matt Crafton only finished fourth in Friday night’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he extended his lead in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ championship standings by nine points in the process.
Friday night’s event was only the fifth of 22 this season, but later this year Crafton and crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner might look back on Charlotte — a track at which Crafton scored his eighth consecutive top-10 finish even while he registered his fifth consecutive top-10 this season — and realize it was “a championship night.”
Crafton was a lap down twice during the 201-mile race, but used sharp pit work, crisp aggression on a couple restarts and a solid No. 88 Fisher Nuts / Menards Toyota fielded by ThorSport Racing to unofficially widen his points lead to 22 over rookie Jeb Burton.
At one point in the last third of the race, as the trucks ran Crafton’s ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter would’ve taken over the point lead if the race had ended then. But Sauter got wrecked by another competitor and finished 28th, and his points deficit to his teammate — 13 points coming into the race — is now 37.
“We had a great truck all night,” Crafton said. “We qualified 14th and then we were able to drive to third right off.”
Crafton actually took the green flag in 13th after rookie German Quiroga, who was supposed to start 10th, went to the rear on the pace laps for making unapproved adjustments after he wrecked on his second lap in qualifying.
But Crafton’s initial run to third just after one-third distance was strong, his pit crew gained him a spot on his first visit to the service alley and despite losing one lap when he was caught out during a green-flag pit cycle interrupted by the race’s third caution flag, Crafton did some hard-charging on restarts — particularly after he had a flat tire in the second half of the race.
“We got a lap down (caught by the yellow) and we got the wave-around,” Crafton said of getting his first lap back. “Then we got the right-rear (tire) flat on the wave-around so we got another lap downhaving to pit under green.”
But Crafton never gave up, and neither did Joiner and his team.
“We stayed focused and we just never gave up,” Joiner said. “We never give up because Matt never gives up on us. And putting in the effort we do is easy because we’ve got a bad-ass wheel-man.”
For Crafton, the feeling is surely mutual. Through the mid-portion of the race, when the sparks from some of the eight cautions were flying, he tried to lay low. But when Crafton allowed another youngster, Ross Chastain, to out-position him for the free pass with 39 laps left, Crafton knew he had to turn up the proverbial wick.
“I finally got back on the lead lap with about 20 to go and drove back to fourth, so it was not a bad night,” Crafton said. “That’s a championship team right there. We didn’t make a ton of changes, but all the adversity we fought through… It was just awesome.
“This Menards Tundra was so good — I just wish we had some track position right there so we could have actually worked on it rather than digging ourselves out of the hole with all our laps down.”
But in the end, Crafton said he wouldn’t really have changed too much about his night.
“That’s just Charlotte,” he said of the advantages he was able to gain on several green flags — such as five spots on the first lap of the race or the next-to-last restart with 14 laps remaining where he started 12th and was eighth after one lap. “Charlotte is just so awesome. In Turns 1 and 2 you can run through there wide open (but) everybody would get loose under each other and it’s chaos.
“I just had to try to be smart (because) I knew they were going to keep busting their butts. I was just trying to be cautious and the 19 (Chastain) got by me for the (free pass) so I was like, ‘OK, I can’t do this anymore, I just have to go.’
“I can’t thank all these guys enough for how hard they work.”
Crafton, who with wife Ashley became first-time parents on April 26, six days after he won the Truck Series’ last race, at Kansas, now has 12 days to enjoy daughter Elladee before he has to be back on track at Dover International Speedway on Thursday, May 30.