Matt Crafton isn’t one bit nervous about Saturday’s Fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
What Crafton and his ThorSport Racing team have done in the season’s first 17 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races — specifically putting Crafton’s No. 88 Slim Jim / Menards Toyota comfortably out front in the championship — has everything to do with that.
For sure, the uncertainty of racing at Talladega casts a long shadow over the first race in a five-week stretch that ends the 22-race Truck Series season. But even if there’s no way to determine in advance how this weekend might go, Crafton can draw a lot of comfort from what he and his team have accomplished so far.
Their resume holds a series-best 16 top-10 finishes in 17 events, including a win and six top-fives that add-up to a 41-point lead over defending series champion James Buescher. Crafton’s completed every lap raced this season.
So it’s no surprise that this weekend Crafton’s just looking for more of the same, even though in the last race, while scoring his first finish this season outside the top-10, Crafton actually led the most laps at Las Vegas, thus breaking-even with Buescher, who out-ran him by two spots, but failed to lead a lap.
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing — we can’t go to a points-racing mode or just riding around or anything stupid like that,” Crafton said. “We’ve just got to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, which is racing to win each and every week — being aggressive when we can be — but above all, being smart.
“The guys on this team just have to keep doing their jobs as good as they have been and we’ll be fine.”
“Fine” can be a relative term when talking Talladega. Crafton’s one of only four drivers that’s started all seven Truck Series races held on the mammoth, high-banked 2.66-mile speedway and he’s finished on the lead lap in a series-best six of them. His only DNF came in 2011, when he was eliminated in a crash after completing 35 laps. He finished 31st and only has an average start of 16.7 and an average finish of 16.4.
“Racing at Talladega is just like going out and buying a lottery ticket — you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Crafton said, laughing. “There’s just no telling — but you’ve got to play the game. You can have the fastest truck and lead every lap, or be struggling to hang on…
“And with three-to-go, or even less than that, something can happen you had no way of predicting. So you’ve just got to have the right partner pushing you and hope that nobody does anything stupid around you and causes a big wreck because nine times out of 10 that’s what causes them — just stupidity or impatience when everyone’s running about a foot or two apart and pushing each other around.
“So you just don’t ever know where you’re going to end up or what kind of shape your truck will be in when you hopefully cross the finish line.”
More than anything this season, Crafton’s proved the ultimate resilience of his team, led by crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner. More than once this season they’ve practiced or qualified badly and even started a couple races with a less-than-optimum setup. But as Crafton continually says, his crew “never gives up, never stops working until the race is over.”
That might come in handy at Talladega, where drafting partners are as critical as a rock-solid crew on pit road.
“You can make whatever alliances you feel like you have to, before the race and agree to work together if you’re around each other at the end,” Crafton said. “Todd Bodine and I did that at Daytona and it worked out for us in the end.”
Crafton smiled when he recalled how Bodine pushed him from somewhere in the low-20s in the running order to ninth at the finish in the season-opening superspeedway race at Daytona International Speedway — but it was all circumstances, Crafton admitted.
“At the end of the race, it’s all unspoken,” Crafton said. “If you’re around somebody that has a good truck and you know they can do it, you just start pushing them or you get pushed by them — you just hold it wide open and steer.”
Throughout the 250-mile race, there’s one thing Crafton knows he’s not going to do, and that’s err on the side of being too timid — though he also knows it can be a fine line between being cautiously aggressive and heaven forbid, “stupid” like he expressed with disdain earlier.
“We’re going to race 100 percent on offense,” Crafton said adamantly. “If you start racing back on your heels, you become hesitant and indecisive and that’s where you screw up. You’ve just got to be on offense and race your (butt) off the whole time.”
Crafton’s ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter, who won at Daytona with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota, predicted it would take 50 laps before he had an idea of how the race might play out. Crafton took a more extreme view born of his own Daytona experience, where he was all but dialed-out until Bodine — who had gotten shuffled out of the lead draft himself — came to his rescue.
“Heck, you’ve got to wait and see how things develop,” Crafton said. “What, the race is 94 laps? I think you just wait the first 85 laps and see what’s there at the end. With 10-to-go you take a look at what’s left and just go like heck with whatever partner you can hook up with.”
Crafton will extend his series-leading record string of consecutive Truck Series starts to 312 when he takes the green flag Saturday afternoon in a race that’s being held in conjunction with Sunday’s sixth round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
On Friday there is a single Truck Series practice session, from 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. ET, which will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1, the former SPEED Channel. Coors Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled at 5:10 PM, with coverage on FOX Sports 2 beginning at 5.
The 94-lap, 250-mile Fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 at 4 p.m. ET, preceded at 3:30 by The Setup pre-race show. The live broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio also begins at 3:30. Live timing & scoring for the weekend’s events will be at www.nascar.com