For Matt Crafton, this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway could be the realization of a dream that’s developed over the past 13 years committed to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series — and considering it’s Phoenix, even back to his childhood — depending on the results of Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 with his No. 88 Splash / Menards Toyota.
Crafton, who’s had a career year in one of ThorSport Racing’s two Toyota Tundras, faces several different scenarios that could result in him clinching the 2013 NCWTS drivers’ championship, which Crafton leads by 46 points over defending series champion James Buescher with just Friday and the Homestead season finale remaining.
All Crafton needs do is finish at least 18th at Phoenix next Friday and at Homestead the weekend after that to clinch his first Truck Series championship — and the first for team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson — no matter what his competitors do. Crafton’s worst finish so far this season has been 17th.
If Crafton has a 41-point lead leaving Phoenix, all he need do is start the race at Homestead to clinch. Even simpler, if Crafton has a 49-point lead over second place after Phoenix, he could skip Homestead and start his celebration a week early — though that won’t happen. After all, there’d be another race to possibly win.
The Thorsons also lead the Truck Series’ owners’ championship by 32 points over Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 Tundra. The owners’ race has a different dimension created by several top teams, including Busch’s, using multiple drivers.
But none of the championship debates concern Crafton, who with his team led by crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner has remained singularly focused week-in and week-out — with the championship, if and when it occurs, destined to be a product of 22 weeks of commitment.
“I’ll say it every week until the season’s done because nothing ever changes with this race team and our record shows it,” Crafton said. “We’ll unload at Phoenix prepared to win the race and that’s all we’ll look at. At the same time, we’ll keep trying to make smart decisions. And it’s a given that my guys at ThorSport never give up, as they proved at Texas.”
Last weekend at Texas, Crafton struggled throughout the race with his truck’s handling, running between 12th and 19th. But in the end, Crafton and Joiner hit on a solution that resulted in a 10th-place finish that was Crafton’s series-best 18th top-10 in 20 races.
And that leads the team to Phoenix, one of the first racetracks Crafton went to as a young child with this season’s circumstances giving Crafton an even deeper reason to want to return.
In his first 11 Truck Series starts on the unique mile racetrack Crafton completed every lap — all 1,662 of them. But just before halfway in last November’s race Parker Kligerman made contact with Crafton’s truck and they crashed in Turn 2. It cost Crafton nine laps making repairs and he finished 20th on account.
“We were running really well in that race and we had a shot at winning that one,” Crafton said, recalling a theme he set in the season finale of his 2000 NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series championship year, when he dominated the Phoenix season finale with the title clinched only to have his car’s rear end fail, putting him out.
Crafton definitely is looking forward to getting back to Phoenix because it’s a special place for the Southern California native who literally grew up in racing at the facility known as the “Desert Jewel.”
“I’ve seen it from when it was pretty rough and only had guard rails all the way around the racetrack,” Crafton said. “To what it is now, with the Sprint Cup cars racing at what’s become a really neat facility. It’s a pretty awesome feeling for me to be able to come here and race, after all the years I’ve been coming here.”
With what Crafton has on the line this weekend it recalls just what a special place the track was to hundreds of grass-roots racers who descended on Phoenix every year — including the Crafton family.
“Phoenix was always the Daytona 500 for the Southwest Tour, as I was growing up and when my dad used to race there right through when I started racing,” Crafton said, a note of reverence creeping into his voice. “Everybody who was anybody in late model racing — a real who’s who — from the East Coast, the Midwest, Northwest, really anywhere they raced late models, everybody came to race that race.
“I remember in 1999 or 2000 — we qualified on the pole and there were 70 cars that showed up for that race. I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid with my dad — like, 1980 — and it’s just always been one of those really cool places. It was a really big deal when we’d take the late model there to race.”
It makes Matt Crafton proud of his record at Phoenix, which includes eight top-10 finishes in the 11 races he completed all the laps in, an average finish of 8.6 in those races — most of them on the “old” version of the racetrack.
Phoenix was reconfigured in 2011, with the most stark changes being remodeling the backstretch “dogleg” and widening the frontstretch.
“Phoenix is definitely a tough place to get ahold of and when you look at the current configuration — I’ve only raced (a complete race) on it once,” Crafton said with a chuckle. “The old track was always a big favorite of mine because I knew it like the back of my hand, and that’s kind of funny because the new racetrack isn’t a ton different.
“But like I said, it’s a very difficult place to get a handle on, because both corners are so dramatically different.”
It’s a case where Crafton said sacrifices have to be made in one end, to help his truck’s performance in the other.
“You’ve got to be decent in Turns 1 and 2 and if you’re decent in 1 and 2 and you know what you’re looking for in 3 and 4, then you’ll maintain in 1 and 2 and you’ll kick their butts in 3 and 4,” Crafton said. “So you focus on getting off of 3 and 4 because it’s huge to carry all that momentum through that long corner and down the front straightaway.”
Crafton, who’s led the championship standings after the last 17 races, is the only series driver that’s completed every lap run this season, 3,093 laps. He plans to make his NCWTS record-extending 315th consecutive start Friday night at Phoenix in an event that kicks off the second of three NASCAR tripleheaders — in conjunction with the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series — that close the season.
The two-day Phoenix Truck Series weekend begins Thursday with a pair of practice sessions, from 5:30-6:25 p.m. ET and 7:35-8:30 p.m. Keystone Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday, with TV coverage on FOX Sports 2.
Friday’s 150-lap, 150-mile Lucas Oil 150 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. The live broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio begins at 7:30 p.m. Live timing & scoring for the weekend’s events will be at www.nascar.com