Matt Crafton ran out of laps at the end of Saturday’s Kroger 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway, but in the end Crafton’s second-place finish in the second race of the season was notable on several counts.
When Crafton took the green flag in his No. 88 Rip It Energy Fuel / Menards Toyota, it was his 296th consecutive Truck Series start, which tied the series’ all-time record — a mark Crafton now holds in conjunction with former ThorSport driver Terry Cook. Ironically, Crafton replaced Cook in the seat of the No. 88 for the final race of the 2000 season, the beginning of Crafton’s impressive streak.
Crafton and crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner struggled with the handling of their Tundra in the beginning of the race, struggling to stay in the top 20 and on the lead lap. But in the end Crafton charged past rookie pole-sitter Jeb Burton and highly-regarded Joe Gibbs Racing development driver Darrell Wallace Jr. to finish 1.8 seconds behind ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota.
Their teammate, Todd Bodine, was in the top-three late in the race and finished 11th in his No. 13 SealMaster Toyota only after being spun out by Kevin Harvick to bring out the final caution of the race, that enabled Sauter to pass Burton for the win.
But Crafton’s finish gave ThorSport its third one-two finish in its history — all of them achieved with Sauter in Victory Lane (at Las Vegas in 2009 and at Texas last June) and with Crafton right behind. The finish was Crafton’s second runner-up effort at the .526-mile speedway but since it moved him up to third in the championship standings, he was OK with it.
“We had a terrible truck on the very first run — we almost went a lap down,” Crafton said. “That just says what a never-say-die attitude that this Menards ThorSport team has. We saved our set of (new) tires there to the end and it was go time.
“It was great for Johnny and them to be over in Victory Lane, but man, I thought we were going to have something for him. I was just a little bit too free on that last run to try to run him down. It was one heck of a show, hopefully.”
Crafton was a big part of that — both in his charge through the field at the end but also through creating the finishing scenario. While racing in heavy traffic on lap 207, Crafton’s faster truck got into the back of John Wes Townley’s truck in Turn 4, causing the young Georgian to get loose in front of Crafton.
Crafton tried to back off to let Townley gather up his out-of-control truck but Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup Series champion Bill Elliott, who was making his Truck Series debut, drilled into Crafton’s back bumper and pushed him into Townley again, wrecking Townley and bringing out a caution with 42 laps remaining.
“I got into (Townley) in the middle of the corner and I tried to back off of him,” Crafton said. “The 94 (Elliott) piled into the back of me and I was literally on my brakes, off the gas and I’m like, ‘I’m along for the ride now, dude.’
“Like I said, I definitely did not mean to wreck (Townley). Hopefully he’ll watch a replay and see the other side of it.”
For Crafton, the other side was he was able top get his last set of new tires, but the amount of laps it took to clean up the aftermath of Townley’s crash deprived Crafton of the laps he needed to catch Sauter at the very end — as Crafton’s truck, after a series of adjustments by Joiner and his crew, was its best when it counted, in the last 25 laps.
It left Crafton looking ahead to two races over the next two weekends, at Rockingham, N.C., and Kansas Speedway.
“Yeah, it was a very good day for ThorSport Racing,” Crafton said. “It just shows what this team — the ThorSport Racing organization — what we’re going to have in 2013. We’re going to be a championship contending team — both of us, Johnny and I.
“This Menards truck was terrible in the first run, but it just shows how good these guys are working on this truck and it was there at the end.”
Crafton is now poised to take sole possession of the Truck Series’ consecutive starts mark, when he takes the green flag next Sunday at Rockingham Speedway in the second annual North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at The Rock presented by Cheerwine.