Matt Crafton used some late adjustments Friday night by his ThorSport Racing crew to their No. 88 Fisher Nuts / Menards Toyota to corral a 10th-place finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino 350K at Texas Motor Speedway.
The result, the team’s series-best 18th top-10 finish of the season, brought the team and championship leader Crafton’s two title-clinching scenarios into sharp focus with a pair of Friday night events on successive weekends all that remains of a 22-race calendar.
Crafton, who’s led the drivers’ championship after the last 17 races, has a 46-point lead over defending Truck Series champion James Buescher, who finished sixth Friday night after leading two laps in the middle of the race, and a 47-point advantage over dominant Texas winner Ty Dillon.
All Crafton need 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.
Even simpler, if Crafton has a 49-point lead over second place after next Friday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, he could skip Homestead and start his celebration a week early — though that won’t happen.
There’s no doubt Crafton, crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner and their squad will be figuring out a way to win that finale as dutifully as they’ve attempted to win all 20 races held so far this season.
The critical owners’ championship was more in question because Crafton’s No. 88 team held only a 15-point lead over Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51, driven by the Sprint Cup championship-contending owner/driver himself at Texas, coming into Friday night.
But Busch’s truck overheated and then blew up, and its 28th-place finish left the 88’s listed owner Rhonda Thorson with a 32-point lead over Busch heading to Phoenix, where Busch said newcomer Erik Jones, who has four top-10 finishes in four starts this season in KBM Toyotas, will drive.
Friday night at Texas, where Crafton came into town riding a string of four consecutive top-six finishes on the bumpy, high-speed 1.5-mile racetrack, Crafton couldn’t believe the seat of his pants when the 147-lap race began.
In practice Thursday evening, Crafton owned the third-fastest lap of the 35 entered trucks and he thought he had something that could contend for the win, and possibly the Keystone Light Pole Award, which was determined Friday afternoon.
But Crafton qualified only 14th, and when the race started he got an even bigger surprise.
“It’s a shame because we really thought we had something to race for the win (Thursday) night, whenever practice finished,” Crafton said, grinning despite feeling a little sheepish. “We were just horrendous at best when we fired off — just really tight — and then we made an adjustment and it was still really bad.”
Crafton struggled to get anywhere near the top 10, actually being scored in seventh during a yellow-flag pit exchange around lap 60, until the very end of the race, when Joiner made some critical adjustments that looked gruesome when Crafton came out of the pits in 19th with 44 laps to go.
“We made a really big change right there at the end and when it came to life it was definitely better,” Crafton said, admitting he needed every one of the 40-some laps it took to get to 10th. “We were off and I kept my fingers crossed with that 10th — they told me that was 10th right there (in front of me) so I did whatever I could do to get there.”
Crafton took advantage of pole-sitting rookie Jeb Burton apparently running out of fuel with less than four laps to go to move into 11th and then passed Ryan Sieg for 10th with less than two laps left.
In the end, Crafton was full of praise for his crew, which once again showed its champion’s mettle in gaining a pile of spots with critical pit work.
“I can’t thank these guys enough for working as hard as they did and they never gave up — none of us did,” Crafton said, shaking his head when asked just how difficult his truck was to handle. “Let’s put it this way — my (butt) hurts — this thing was so bad.
“It was just plow, plow, plow and then snap loose. It’s like, you didn’t know what it was going to do. It would push so bad through the center and off the corner and just as it got to the wall it would snap itself loose and you would just about wreck it.
“Then we made one adjustment and made it loose on entry and then it was still tight from the center off and then we took some of that back and did a few other track bar adjustments, air pressure adjustments and came out with 10th.”
Crafton, who collected top-10 finishes in the first 16 races this season and has now positioned two more top 10s around his two worst races, a 17th at Martinsville after a wreck while running third and an 11th at Las Vegas that might’ve been another top 10 with a couple more laps to race, now looks forward to the race he calls his “home track event,” at Phoenix, which will be his record-extending 315th consecutive Truck Series start.
“We just love that track and have a lot of experience there from the Featherlite Southwest Tour days,” Crafton said. “We’ve run good enough to win there, and that would be really special to have a great race next weekend.”