Saturday’s Fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Talladega Superspeedway was almost everything Matt Crafton could’ve hoped for, even though his No. 88 Slim Jim / Menards Toyota finished the race wrecked, but just past the finish line.
In a bizarre last half-mile — even by Talladega standards — Crafton went from looking like a second-place finisher to his winning ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota to a smoking and stationary ninth.
But the most important aspect of the finish — in the event that championship leader Crafton feared the most in the five-week stretch to the season finale that started at Talladega — was that Crafton and his team left “The World’s Fastest Speedway” with a 57-point championship lead over Ty Dillon with four races remaining.
Talladega marked the 14th consecutive race after which Crafton’s led the standings and this season, no one but he and Sauter has ever led.
“That was a great speedway race truck — even if it didn’t qualify so well,” Crafton said shortly after returning to the garage. “There at the end, I thought we were going to have something. I started to pull out and do something, too, there at the end.”
But before he could make a move on Sauter, and less than 400 yards from the finish — as a 12-truck wreck that ruined virtually all the lead-pack trucks started breaking out right behind them — Crafton’s Tundra was hooked by Ross Chastain’s Ford when Chastain’s “pusher,” Parker Kligerman ran into Chastain’s right-rear quarter panel.
“Absolutely, we were going for the win,” Crafton said. “That’s what they pay me for. It was going to be a side-by-side ThorSport finish, for sure.”
It didn’t work out that way, but with Sauter and Crafton seriously out-running all their championship rivals, they liked the look of things after the dust had settled.
Crafton now has more than a full-race lead, as the most points a driver can gain in a race is 48 — if Crafton doesn’t even start — and his team has recorded 17 top-10 finishes in the season’s 18 races. Sauter moved from eighth to sixth, within four points of fifth after coming to Talladega 26 points out of a seat at the championship banquet that the top-five finishers earn.
Crafton, who carried a 41-point lead in the standings over defending Truck Series champion James Buescher into the 18th of 22 races this season, played his strategy perfectly all day. Crafton rode around at the back of the field for two-thirds of the race as a Truck Series Talladega record for lead changes (29) and leaders (tied at 13) was established.
Crafton did lead one lap, during the second of seven caution periods at lap 22 while Buescher had led the most laps to that point, 16. But with 33 laps remaining, Crafton’s game of repeated pit stops — often twice under the same caution flag — seemed to have paid off with Crafton sitting 15th and Sauter pushing him from 16th.
Two laps later, the ThorSport pair showed how effective the tandem draft could be as they moved to the lead three-quarters of the way through the lap, only to have Dillon lead at the line.
Shortly after that, Buescher was wiped-out in a mid-pack wreck that ultimately left him in 26th spot and now third, 58 points behind Crafton and one position in the points behind Dillon, who worked well enough with Buescher to lead the most laps, although the wild finish left Dillon in 14th.
But as different pit and fuel strategies played out over the final 25 laps, including four cautions, the ThorSport pair was locked-into the top 10. The seventh and final caution set up a three-lap run to the checkers, but in their final strategic coup Sauter and Crafton lined up nose-to-tail in second and fourth, respectively.
When the green flag flew they quickly connected and then were locked in a nose-to-tail tandem draft for more than two laps before the closing melee began. In the end, both ThorSport teammates’ praise for each other was effusive.
“You (media) beat me up on (a ride-in-the-back strategy), always,” Crafton said, laughing. “I just can’t thank Johnny — everybody on this team — we just never give up. We had very, very slow trucks by ourselves, but when they locked-up (in a tandem) it was game on.”
Crafton’s plan to stay near the rear was embellished when he had to guide his No. 88 Tundra to the back of the field on the pace laps from his 23rd starting position after crew chief Carl “Junior” Joiner had directed his team to rebuild the truck’s fuel system after it didn’t behave well during qualifying.
ThorSport’s game now switches from the series’ longest oval track to its shortest, the half-mile at Martinsville Speedway, where the trucks race next Saturday afternoon. In the spring, Sauter won at Martinsville and Crafton — who extended his record consecutive Truck Series starts string to 312 races — came-from-behind to finish second.