Matt Crafton’s raced long enough to know no racetrack could ever owe anything to a driver or a race team. But he’s also human enough to know when payback might be called for.
And that’s a perfect scene-setter for Saturday’s Kroger 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in southern Virginia.
Because at the series’ last stop at NASCAR’s shortest track on its national tours — in last October’s Kroger 200 — Crafton’s No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota was poised to win, until Sprint Cup Series star Denny Hamlin used a classic short-track move to bump Crafton out of the lead and into a fourth-place finish.
“We got one (win) taken away from us last fall so we definitely look forward to going back there and getting a little redemption,” said Crafton, who this week is flying the Rip It Energy Fuel / Menards colors. “Whoever is in front of me better hang on ’cause we’re going to give them a ride if we’re running second. We’re tired of finishing second — of being the bridesmaid.”
Hamlin’s not entered this weekend but 39 other competitors are, including Crafton’s ThorSport teammates Johnny Sauter (No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota) and Todd Bodine (No. 13 SealMaster Toyota). But there are plenty of other aggressive contenders with a variety of experience — from another Cup star and former Martinsville winner Kevin Harvick to Chase Elliott, who’s making his Truck Series debut — but that doesn’t daunt Crafton and his crew chief, Carl Joiner Jr., a bit.
We all grew up racing the short tracks,” Crafton said. “So for me it’s a blast and I love going to the short tracks. I look forward to going back to Martinsville each year, especially with how well we always run there.”
That’s a credit to Joiner, truck chief Bud Haefele and their crew. It’s even more important to Crafton this weekend because he’ll tie inaugural ThorSport driver Terry Cook for the all-time Truck Series mark for consecutive starts, 296, when he takes the green flag.
“We’re going to Martinsville trying to show up and land in Victory Lane — that’s what we do every week,” Joiner said of rule adjustments NASCAR made for 2013 that limit teams’ ability to adjust rear suspension settings. “There’s a lot of variables going into Martinsville, with the new rules package but we tested last week to try to get back to where we were last year and I think we made some decent gains.”
With another full season together under their belts Joiner has added confidence, coupled with the affinity Crafton already has for his crew. And even though this Martinsville race has 50 more laps than the fall 200-lapper, both men are craving the strategic challenge.
“I think if we have good pit stops and we just keep the fenders on the thing and we just race smarter for the first half of the race, we’ll be OK,” Joiner said. “This is the long one, this one is an extra 50 laps compared to the fall. I’m hoping it’ll fall right into our hands.
“The guys have been working hard all winter, I think we’ve got a lot of good people, a lot of good ideas and we’re in a lot better shape than at this point last year.”
Crafton gets that point, and it’s got him eighth in the Truck Series’ standings going into the season’s second race.
“Definitely, having a good start to the season is good for the points, more than anything because Daytona is a completely different animal from anywhere else we go — other than Talladega,” Crafton said. “So we’ll take that little bit of momentum from Daytona and the positive attitude we have at the ThorSport organization and go to Martinsville to contend to win again, going from one of the biggest racetracks to the smallest track we go to. It’s gonna be exciting.”
Joiner expects that excitement to ramp up considerably in the stretch at Martinsville — particularly in the last 50 laps when, he said, only one thing matters.
“Track Position,” Joiner said bluntly. “You can’t go wrong with track position, so you just gotta get off pit road — the last pit stop has to be the money stop and you have to give him the right adjustments.
“He’s gotta be communicating with me throughout the last three-quarters of that race so that the last stop, we don’t miss — you gotta hit it right on. That’s what happened last year, though obviously Denny Hamlin had the best truck and he ended up at Victory Lane and we weren’t.
“But if we just communicate like I know him and I can do, we can put that thing in Victory Lane, there’s not a doubt in my mind. That’s why we show up every week.”
That result, and a continuation of the season’s momentum, would suit Crafton just fine, particularly given the unique trophy that Martinsville president Clay Campbell presents to the track’s winners in its frontstretch Victory Lane.
“It would be awesome to win and get that (Grandfather) clock,” Crafton said. “It would be so damn cool to bring that Grandfather clock home for a trophy and with all the history of Martinsville — it would be awesome to win there.”
The Kroger 250 is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. ET start on Saturday. Live television coverage is on SPEED Channel, beginning with the “Set-up” pre-race show at 1 p.m. and MRN Radio has the live radio broadcast.