Matt Crafton’s finished second in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway three of the last four years so it’s no surprise — with the biggest payoff he’s ever had within his grasp — that Crafton and his No. 88 Jeld-Wen / Menards Toyota team are ready to win Saturday’s Smith’s 350 at LVMS.
Crafton’s recent career at Las Vegas — five consecutive top-five finishes — is a slice of what his 2013 season’s been. Crafton’s the only Truck Series driver that’s logged a top-10 finish in all 16 races, and the result of that is a 41-point lead over defending series champion James Buescher with six races left in the season.
His recent mastery of Las Vegas’ high-speed, moderately-banked 1.5-mile oval has Crafton — who’s made 12 Truck starts at Vegas and who has the Truck Series’ second-best average finish over the last eight races of the drivers entered this weekend (to ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter), ninth — grinning when he looks ahead to Saturday’s one-day show.
“We’re attacking Vegas the same way we did Chicagoland,” said Crafton, who struggled with his truck’s handling at the last race but persevered while his crew made adjustments throughout the race that put Crafton in position to charge into the top five at the finish.
“We had a really, really good truck (at Las Vegas) last year and I led the last 14 laps, but I got passed on the last lap by Nelson (Piquet Jr.). That’s been one of the hardest losses to swallow of my entire career — our truck was that good.”
Crafton’s not been an ace when it comes to qualifying at Las Vegas — his average start in the last eight races is only 12.5. But according to NASCAR’s Loop Data statistics, Crafton’s made the most green-flag passes (371) and “quality passes” — passing trucks near the front of the running order while under green flag conditions (304).
That’s the kind of performance that’s put him in the position he’s in for the stretch run of his 13th full-time Truck Series season.
“What it’s come down to this season is I’ve got an awesome group of guys and a terrific crew chief — it all comes down to the people and I feel like I’ve got the best,” Crafton said. “Junior Joiner (crew chief the last two seasons) has been really good for me. We won a championship together in the (NASCAR Featherlite) Southwest Tour and this is only his second season as a crew chief in the Truck Series.
“Hopefully we can keep doing what we’re doing and carry it through to the end of the year. That would really be special to finish this thing out.”
Crafton’s certainly found a niche at Las Vegas, given his higher average finish of late. Over his entire 12-race career his average start and finish are each 13, though he dies have five top fives and six top 10s. But there’s no question both Crafton and ThorSport have taken their overall games to the proverbial “next level” this season and Crafton expects that to continue this week.
“We’re not looking at making any major changes, just polishing on the apple, as Junior likes to say,” Crafton said of the six-race stretch run that starts Saturday. “We’ve been pretty good all season — though we’ve had to really scramble for some of our finishes. But it’s going to come down to the fine-tuning, and I don’t think anyone’s better at that than Junior and my guys.”
That performance has left Crafton and his ThorSport teams as one of the cornerstones of what Crafton says is the best racing show around.
“Without a doubt, the Camping World Truck Series is the best racing in NASCAR,” Crafton said. “I think it’s better than the (NASCAR) Nationwide Series because you don’t have a bunch of Sprint Cup-affiliated teams running. Yeah, RCR (Richard Childress Racing) is in the Truck Series but in Nationwide those Cup-affiliated teams just out-resource the Nationwide regulars.
“In the Truck Series we have a great group of owners, like Duke and Rhonda Thorson at ThorSport, that have built really good trucks and it’s more up to the drivers to make something happen with them. That’s why I think it’s the best racing in NASCAR because you’ve got a bunch of hungry drivers and when the green flag falls you’ve only got 150 laps to get it done and we have to race as hard as we can — basically we run every lap as if we were qualifying — and that makes for a great show and I think that’s the way it should be, for our fans and us drivers, too.”
For the temperature of the action to be that high, it makes it even more impressive what Crafton and his team have been able to accomplish.
“At the end of the day I know we’ve had trucks that were capable of winning races, and I’m expecting to having Tundras that are that good, in the stretch and I feel like we’ll be in a position to win a couple more races,” Crafton said of his recent strategies. “But to be perfectly blunt we just can’t do anything stupid trying to win a race or gain a position or two when we have a lot more to lose than we do to gain.
“Every week we’ve had to race smart and that’s tough because you know some of your competitors are saying ‘well, he’s the point leader and we can use him up a little bit because he can’t do anything about it.’ But at the same time, we can’t — and we haven’t been — racing on defense all the time and what we were able to do at Chicagoland proved that.”
Crafton’s hoping his recent performances at Las Vegas will culminate in his fourth career Truck Series victory, Saturday evening.
“I’m hoping we can redeem ourselves and make up for last year — get the trophy there — because we’ve been really, really good at Las Vegas in the past,” Crafton said. “That would be a special one to win because Junior and I are both from the West Coast so we’re going to be ready, no question.”
Crafton will extend his series-leading record string of consecutive Truck Series starts to 311 when he takes the green flag Friday evening in the final stand-alone Truck Series event of the season.
Crafton and Sauter will appear at a public autograph session Friday kicking off the Truck Series’ weekend from 6-7 p.m. MT at The Pub inside ThorSport’s Las Vegas hotel partner, the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino at 3770 S Las Vegas Blvd.
On Saturday there are two Truck Series practice sessions, from 12-1:15 p.m. ET and 1:45-3 p.m. Coors Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled for 6:15 p.m.
The 146-lap, 219-mile (350K) Smith’s 350 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 (the former SPEED Channel) at 8:30 p.m. ET, preceded at 8 p.m. by The Setup pre-race show. The live broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio begins at 8. Live timing & scoring for all the day’s events will be at www.nascar.com.