Saturday’s Kroger 200 at Martinsville Speedway included every high and low evident in a full season of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series racing for championship leader Matt Crafton’s No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Toyota team.
Crafton had endured an up-and-down lead-up to the 19th race in the Truck Series season — not quite getting his truck where he wanted in practice and then qualifying 13th when a persistent “tight” condition suddenly got a little worse.
But when it really mattered in the 200-lap race’s stretch run, Crafton had his bright yellow Tundra right where he wanted it, in the top-five with less than 20 laps to go.
That’s when the crazy, close-quarters confrontations that often epitomize NASCAR short-track racing reared-up and bit Crafton — hard.
Crafton, who had raced into the top 10 before 30 laps were run and who was never scored outside the top 10 until the last 10 laps of the race, had restarted third at lap 185. With only 12 laps to go, leader Kevin Harvick and second-place Ty Dillon, who was also running second to Crafton in the championship at that moment, tangled going through Turns 1 and 2, with Harvick finally spinning in Turn 2.
The chain reaction accident caused Crafton to run into the back of Dillon’s truck, spinning it out. Closely-following Jeb Burton couldn’t help but pile-drive Crafton from behind. Crafton also ran into Harvick’s spun truck with his Toyota’s left-front.
After pitting to repair his torn-up truck, Crafton restarted in 21st with only six laps left and recovered to finish 17th.
“We came here and put ourselves in position to win the race at the end of the race,” Crafton said. “I don’t know what happened with the 3 (Dillon) and the 14 (Harvick). All of a sudden they turned each other sideways and I tried to hit my brakes and got clobbered from behind. It’s a shame…
“I didn’t expect (Dillon) to come across (Harvick), but he’s trying everything he can to try not to lose spots. I’m sure he knew it was the 14 and then there was me and then he was going to get freight-trained so he was just trying everything he could.
“I don’t blame him. It sucks that it collected us.”
The good news is this was the first time this season any damage of that degree had befallen Crafton during a race — he scored top-10 finishes in the season’s first 16 races.
But crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner directed his crew to repair the truck rapidly and correctly in the pits, and the way Crafton was able to pick up four spots while Dillon finished 22nd — right where he restarted — was a testament to his crew that Crafton’s never slow to deliver.
“All in all it’s a credit to the never give up attitude from these guys,” Crafton said of his ThorSport crew, which once again picked up spots for Crafton on their regular pit stops.
The real bright side of what looked like it might’ve been a truly brutal finale in the sheet-metal crunching melee, was that Crafton left Martinsville leading the series’ standings for the 15th consecutive race.
With Dillon leading 16 laps but having his catastrophic tangle with Harvick in the end, he fell from second in the points entering Martinsville — 57 points behind Crafton — to third, 61 points back.
Defending series champion James Buescher, who had dropped from second to third in points after a vicious accident at Talladega in the previous race, recovered from a spin early in the race at Martinsville and finished 10th.
Thus, with three races left in the 22-race season, Crafton has a 51-point lead over Buescher.
“It’s just like Daytona and Talladega — this was one to get through,” Crafton said of Martinsville compared to the ‘wildcard’ superspeedway races that he survived with two of his league-best 17 top-10 finishes. “We lost minimal points to the 31 (Buescher). It wasn’t the end of the world — we did everything we had to do.”
And now Crafton heads to a racetrack at which he has every reason to believe he’ll contend for the win, next Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway where he plans to extend his Truck Series record consecutive starts streak to 314 races.
Crafton was fourth there earlier this season, was sixth in the 2012 fall event and second to ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter in June, when the pair teamed up for ThorSport’s second career one-two finish.
“I’m really looking forward to Texas,” Crafton said. “Junior has really got our downforce trucks running well and we won earlier this season at Kansas, another intermediate racetrack.
“I know Johnny will be good there but I’d really like to flip-flop the way we finished there last year. Getting another one-two for ThorSport would be big, especially considering the way this championship is winding up.”