Matt Crafton opened the defense of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers’ championship with a low-key 13th-place run Friday night in his No. 88 Fisher Nuts / Menards Toyota Tundra in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
Crafton started the weekend strong as he spent time atop the time sheets during the event’s three practice sessions and ended up in the top five in all of them.
When the Truck Series’ inaugural elimination-style group qualifying session was rained out earlier Friday, Crafton earned the fourth starting position based on his practice speeds.
However, that was the best his familiar bright yellow Tundra would show all night — though he did get back to fifth with just 10 laps to go during a wild, 11-lap run to the finish after the fourth and final caution period in the 100-lap race.
“I hesitated as those other guys made a move and I thought I should’ve stayed outside, but I never thought the 17 (Timothy Peters) would make the run that he did,” Crafton said on pit road after the race. “So that was 100 percent my fault. I guess I should have tried to jump up in front of him and see what I could do.
“But like I said, I take that one on the chin because I should’ve known enough to jump up and try it, but it was a shame, because I just didn’t do it.”
Much as the 2013 opener had been, Friday night’s race turned into a struggle to maintain track position and, unlike a year ago when ThorSport teammate Todd Bodine hooked-up with Crafton in the last run and pushed him to ninth in a tandem draft, this time around that wasn’t allowed.
And Bodine, at any rate, was a member of the FOX Sports 1 TV crew downstairs in the “Hollywood Hotel.” Crafton certainly could’ve used some tandem help when he fell back as far as 32nd with 40 laps to go.
“It was a real adjustment because you could bump, but you couldn’t lock (bumpers) and push at all,”: Crafton said of NASCAR’s latest mandate banning tandem drafting in which one truck locks its bumper to a partner and literally pushes the second truck around the racetrack at a much higher speed than either vehicle could attain on its own. “It is what it is and you definitely didn’t want to hit your team truck too hard and wreck him, so you were limited in what you could do.”
All bets seemed off when the fourth and final restart flag waved on the 90th lap.
“No, no, no,” Crafton said when asked if he ever thought there wouldn’t be a caution in the race’s final laps, where plenty of paint was traded as about 15-20 trucks raced side-by-side for the last 11 laps. “There was no way — never in my wildest dreams — did I think we’d pull that off (laughing).
“I thought there would be a yellow, for sure and once we got the white (flag) I figured we were gonna finish the race upside-down and on fire. But I never thought we’d get to the finish line, the way everyone was beating and banging and just sliding all over the place.”
Because several of the drivers that finished in front of Crafton, including race winner Kyle Busch and fourth place Ryan Truex aren’t registered to earn Truck Series points, Crafton will go to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in five weeks 10th in the championship, 12 points behind race runner-up Peters and 10 behind teammate Johnny Sauter, the defending race winner who finished third.
A year ago at Martinsville. Crafton finished runner-up to Sauter, which gave ThorSport its third one-two finish in its 18-year history, all of them by Sauter and Crafton and all of them in identical order.
“All-in-all this wasn’t a bad way to start the season,” Crafton said. “To be sitting here on pit road with three (ThorSport) Tundras sitting in one piece gives us a starting point and we’ve definitely got some good racetracks coming up.”