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Matt Crafton, the last Truck series lifer

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FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Matt Crafton has been around awhile.

“The 1902 testing grounds for the first automobile created? You drove on that track, right?” jokes Ben Rhodes in the cramped confines of Crafton’s hauler on a hot June day.

It hasn’t been that long. But Rhodes, born in 1997 and one of Crafton’s ThorSport Racing teammates, is part of a youth movement in NASCAR that does its best on a weekly basis to make it feel as if it has been.

Crafton, a two-time champion of the Camping World Truck Series, first ventured into the series on Oct. 28, 2000, when Rhodes was 3 years old.

Crafton was 24 and months away from the start of his first full season on the Truck circuit.

He also was 16 years away from being its last, true lifer.

MULLET MAN

There once was a mullet.

It belonged to Matt Crafton, high school student.

“It was probably my senior year of high school,” Crafton says, standing in his hauler at Texas Motor Speedway two days shy of his 40th birthday. “I know I didn’t leave it on much longer than that.”

The day before, a picture of Crafton smirking in a high school class photo with the “party in the back” hairdo surfaced on Twitter thanks to “#NASCARThrowbackThursday.”

“I showed that to Jesse Little, he had the mullet, same deal as me,” says Crafton of the 19-year-old who has made one series start this season. “I said, ‘See, everybody made fun of my mullet and now they go ‘Look, look at Jesse Little. He’s got a mullet.'”

When Crafton’s mullet was vintage and not “vintage,” the Camping World Truck Series didn’t exist. Its inception was still at least two years off in 1995.

Crafton and his mullet resided in Tulare, California, 60 miles north of Bakersfield. His dream for racing was fueled by watching his father, Danny Crafton, a nine-year veteran of NASCAR’s old Featherlite Southwest Tour.

“I didn’t get to do a lot of things that I wanted to do in high school because I was working on a race car and being at race tracks and stuff like that,” Crafton says. “So I didn’t get to go out to parties and dances, the cool things at that time. I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to regret this one day.’

“But at the end of the day I could always say it would pay off if I worked hard.”

The love affair that kept him busy began at 7 when Danny Crafton bought his son a go-kart. Matt Crafton’s earliest vivid memory of his racing career came a year later, and it hurt.

“(I was) leading it and spinning out with probably three or four laps to go,” Matt Crafton remembers. “I had such a big lead, I tried to pull right back in front of everybody and absolutely got nailed in the left side and people went over me.”

When his father arrived on the scene, tears streaked Matt Crafton’s face and tire marks were visible on his helmet.

“My dad asked me ‘Are you going to cry or you going to race?'” Crafton says.

CALL TO ACTION

While preparing for the 1996 St. Patrick’s Day 100 at Altamont Motorsports Park, Danny Crafton blew a radiator hose on his No. 46 Ford. His car backed hard into the wall and hurt Danny Crafton’s back “really, really bad,” Matt Crafton says.

The injury led to Matt making his Featherlite series debut a month later at Mesa Marin Raceway, piloting the family’s No. 46 to a 15th-place finish.

But the No. 46 wouldn’t appear again until two races later as Danny Crafton tried to give it a go at Sonoma Raceway. His attempt didn’t last long. After the first practice session at the road course, Danny Crafton emerged from his car “pale white” from his back pain.

“I can’t do it, you want to try it?” he asked his 19-year-old son. Matt Crafton had never started on a road course outside of the go-kart circuit.

He made the race. He spun out once, putting the car atop a tire barrier.

“It was quite a learning experience,” he says.

GOING SOMEWHERE

After two championships and 13 wins, Matt Crafton doesn’t consider the Camping World Truck Series the most competitive series he’s ever raced.

That would be the Featherlite Southwest Tour.

“The greatest NASCAR touring, fiberglass body, late model, whatever series there was,” Crafton says 10 years after the series had its last say on the track.

1997 brought Crafton’s first full season in a series his dad had competed on a part-time basis since 1988 — the series Ron Hornaday Jr. won two championships before leaving for the fledgling Truck series.

Outside Hornaday, the series had title winners with the names of Roman Calczynski, Dan Press, Chris Raudman and in 1999, Kurt Busch. Crafton joined their ranks in 2000, when he earned two of his five series wins plus 11 top fives and 12 top 10s.

“Matt Crafton has been a lifer this whole time,” Hornaday told NBC Sports last year. “It seems like everything I’ve done, he does the same, but he’s three to five years behind me.”

Crafton’s last full-time season in the Southwest Series was 2000. He caught the attention of Duke Thorson, owner of ThorSport Racing. The team had been competing in what was then the Craftsman Truck Series since 1996 with Terry Cook as a driver.

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 28: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Crafton had “never missed” watching a Truck race in its early years.

“I always remember it was such an awesome, awesome series,” Crafton says. “It reminded you of the Featherlight Southwest Tour. Just the beating and banging, running on a mile race track.”

Crafton signed to drive for ThorSport in 2001 as Cook was leaving to start his own team. Crafton got an early start in the 2000 season finale as Cook drove for his team.

The California native made his Truck debut in the Motorola 200 at Auto Club Speedway. He qualified 17th and finished ninth. It was his first of 217 top-10 finishes in the series.

“The biggest thing I ever ran (before that) was one or two races at Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) in a late-model with a restrictor plate on it,” Crafton says. Before that October weekend, Crafton had also never driven anything 180 mph into a corner.

Other drivers who finished in the top 10 that day were Busch, Jack Sprague, Greg Biffle, Cook, and Joe Ruttman. At 24, Crafton was one of two drivers in the top 10 under the age of 30 — the other was Busch, who was 22. The average age of the top 10 that day was 32.1.

In the June 25, 2016 race at Gateway Motorsports Park, in which Crafton recorded a DNF, the average age of the top 10 was 25.

MR. CONSISTENCY

“Crafton should be winning, my God, it’s been long enough,” Jack Sprague told NBC Sports last year. “He’s not a youngster anymore either.”

When the 2015 NASCAR season began, Crafton was 38 and had five Truck wins after 14 full-time seasons. It had taken until 2008, his eighth season in the series, to get his first win.

“There’s some guys out there that do that,” Hornaday says. “He’s just consistent Matt Crafton. Once you get that taste in your blood, it comes pretty easy after that.”

Even though he won only three times from 2013 – 14, Crafton became the first back-to-back champion in the Truck series behind 20 top fives and 36 top 10s.

Then at 38, Crafton embarked on his best season, doubling his win total with six victories. He’s added two more in 2016 to make it 13. Crafton proves it’s never too late to achieve firsts in your career. While it took 18-year-old William Byron less than 10 starts to win consecutive races, Crafton earned that distinction a month earlier after his 366th start.

The mark was highlighted for Crafton with his first win at Dover International Speedway in 16 starts.

DOVER, DE - MAY 13: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Chi-Chi's/Menards Toyota, poses with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series JACOB Companies 200 at Dover International Speedway on May 13, 2016 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Dover was one of the best ones I’ve had in a long, long time just because the fact I had so many big wrecks there,” says Crafton, who once suffered a concussion at the Monster Mile and stayed overnight at a hospital

So excited, Crafton doesn’t recall setting the trophy down until he arrived at his home in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Eventually, all of the “hard-nosed racers” Crafton came of age competing against in the truck series were replaced by those who’d have trouble growing a mustache.

Sprague, a three-time champion, made his last Camping World Truck Series start in 2008. Mike Skinner, the first truck series champion, made his final full-time start in 2010. Todd Bodine, a two-time champion, was last seen in 2013. Hornaday, the all-time series leader in wins with 51, hasn’t driven a truck since the fall Texas race in 2014.

Then there’s Crafton. He’s the only truck champion from the last 10 years competing full time in the series, and he’s doing so with the same sponsor, Menards, he’s competed with every year but one since 2002.

Of his early years against the founders of the series, Crafton admits “I probably didn’t lean on them as much as I should have.”

But that shouldn’t be a problem for those following him. Crafton is a constant presence for his three young teammates at ThorSport, all of whom are 24 years of age or younger.

“He’s been huge,” said rookie Rico Abreu, 24. “Off the track, on the track, mountain bike riding, wherever we go … Just so detailed about everything he explains and describes and what he feels, he’s been doing it a long time. Being able to run over to his truck throughout practice or him come over and look underneath the splitter or work with my crew chief.”

But his teammates are not the only drivers benefiting.

When Crafton’s interview time is up, he and Rhodes walk out of Crafton’s hauler into the bright Texas sunlight. They’re on their way to the mandatory rookie meeting held at every track that Crafton leads.

Who better to advise the “youth movement” than a lifer enjoying his prime?

Crew chief explains order to Kyle Busch to do ‘doughnuts to the right’

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Crew chief Adam Stevens explained what he meant when he told Kyle Busch on the radio to do “doughnuts to the right” after Busch’s victory in Saturday night’s All-Star Race.

Stevens provided an explanation Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.’’

“That had nothing to do with any damage being received,’’ Stevens said. “That was just an effort to make sure that we could meet the (Laser Inspection Station) tolerances after the races. Doughnuts and burnouts are very hard on the car. It puts a lot of stress into all the suspension components. If we go out there and do the doughnuts to the left the same way that we’ve been turning all day, it’s going to eat into more of that tolerance.

“The only car out there doing doughnuts is the winner. We’re going to use up all of our tolerance doing doughnuts potentially. If we have that opportunity to do doughnuts, it just makes sense to do them the other direction so we’re not stressing the components in that manner.’’

Busch’s car passed inspection after the race.

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Slugger Labbe exits Richard Childress Racing as Austin Dillon gets crew chief Justin Alexander

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Richard Childress Racing made multiple crew chief changes Monday that included the departure of longtime employee Richard “Slugger” Labbe.

Justin Alexander was named crew chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in replacing Labbe, who is leaving RCR to pursue “other opportunities,” according to the team.

Alexander, who previously worked as the crew chief for Paul Menard, was promoted from RCR’s No. 2 in the Xfinity Series. Randall Burnett, who recently left AJ Allmendinger’s team, will take over Alexander’s job in the Xfinity Series.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

Here’s the release from the team:

Richard Childress Racing Announces Competition Changes to its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Programs

Justin Alexander to take over No. 3 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Role;

Randall Burnett to take over No. 2 XFINITY Series Crew Chief Position

WELCOME, N.C. (May 22, 2017) – Richard Childress Racing has made a change in crew chiefs for its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series programs, effective immediately.

Justin Alexander, who has served as the crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet for RCR and earned two wins last season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, will assume crew chief responsibilities for the No. 3 Dow/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet SS team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with driver Austin Dillon. Alexander holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to RCR, Alexander served in various engineering roles with Hendrick Motorsports. Alexander’s first race in his new role will be for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, replacing Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe is leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.

Randall Burnett, who previously served as a crew chief for RCR’s technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will assume a new role as crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series beginning at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27. Burnett holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte. Prior to JTG Daugherty Racing, he spent 10 years as an engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Red Horse Racing suspends operations

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Red Horse Racing, which has competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2005, has suspended operations.

The organization, which reached the championship race last year with Timothy Peters, had 16 career victories. The team laid off 30 employees along with Peters and driver Brett Moffitt, a team official told NBC Sports. The team has kept a core group of employees as it seeks funding to resume operations.

Peters finished fifth in Friday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Moffitt placed 18th. Peters is sixth in the points and Moffitt is 10th. Neither truck has had a primary sponsor listed in all five races this season. 

Peters won at least one race for the organization from 2009-15. In 2012, the organization finished second in the owner points with four drivers scoring wins: Peters (two wins), Todd Bodine (one), John King (one) and Parker Kligerman (one).

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NASCAR executive defends rules package after lackluster All-Star Race

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After an All-Star race that featured three lead changes in 70 laps, a senior NASCAR executive defended the rules package but conceded that the option tire “didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that one race isn’t going to lead to significant rule changes.

“I think we’ve got to keep it in context,’’ O’Donnell said Monday. “I find it ironic that you can go from one week of everyone saying this is the greatest rules package and then you walk into one race with a bit of a different format (and opinions not as high). We feel still really bullish on the rules package we have, the work we’ve done with the industry to get where we’re at. Certainly you want every race to be the best it possibly can be.

“We’ve got to look at the facts and the facts are a lot of different organizations winning this year, the (manufacturers) having an ability to win, Kyle (Busch) his first win ever (in Cup) at Charlotte, which is surprising to me, and a lot of young drivers really putting their names out there competing out front. Really like where we’re at right now.

“Our job is to look at the whole year. If I reacted to every comment you had on Twitter, it would be very different. It’s one of those things we’ve got to look at the overall picture, we’ve got to take the input from everybody in the industry and we do that. I think from a rules package standpoint we continue to see the sport moving in the right direction in terms of what we’re seeing in competitiveness from different organizations. That’s really how we judge it from an overall standpoint and not just one race.’’

Heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, there have been eight different winners in the first 11 races. There have been at least eight different winners in the first 11 races in three of the last four years.

Among organizations, seven different teams have scored victories this season: Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Four organizations had won a race in the first 11 events last year and in 2015.

In the five races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season — Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and the All-Star Race — lead changes are down compared to the same events last year. There have been 63 lead changes in those five events this year compared to 94 in those same events a year ago and 99 two years ago.

The three lead changes in the All-Star race were the fewest since 2007, although Saturday’s race had the fewest laps (70) since that 2007 race, which was 80 laps.

Still, the hope was that there could be plenty of cars moving forward and backward with the use of a second tire compound, a softer compound. The goal was for the tire to be a few tenths quicker at the onset but wear more quickly than the regular tire.

“Goodyear delivered on exactly what we had asked,’’ O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We wanted three to four-tenths on a tire and by the practice times and the early part of the race we saw that. Kudos to Goodyear. I think what you saw Saturday night was really the difference probably in the car versus the tire and maybe a need to go even further if you were going to pursue that avenue in terms of difference in speed. That’s something we could look at for the future. Obviously you guys saw what I saw, it didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Asked if the option tire is something still on the table for future events, O’Donnell said: “I think so. I think you look at what may be the impact versus the car. I think the bigger thing is, when you look at tires in general, continuing to focus on rain tire, what should be our priority. There’s talk, I don’t want to tip the hand, but way down the future could you ever run Martinsville if the track was damp because Goodyear is able to, in terms of the speed, put something together.

“It’s a balance for us of where do we put their focus. Obviously they’re capable of doing all things. I think something we’d look at All-Star for sure, not sure in terms of a points race.’’

Another question was about the splitter after Erik Jones’ bid for the lead in the final laps of the Monster Energy Open was foiled when he ran below the apron and through grass on the frontstretch. He damaged his splitter in the incident.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was critical of the splitter on Twitter.

O’Donnell defended the splitter’s purpose on the car.

“Why we have it, I think everybody, including the drivers and the industry wanted to look at going toward the lower downforce package,’’ O’Donnell said. “That’s part of the package. It’s part of what we worked on with the (manufacturers). We’re actually very happy with the product we’ve had.

“If you look back to Kansas, one of the better mile-and-a-half races we’ve had. It’s always interesting with one incident and everybody jumps on, ‘Hey, why do we have this on the car?’ Certainly something down the road you can always look at, but it’s part of the overall aerodynamics of the car. It all fits in.

“For now, we continue to like the direction of lower downforce and going to continue down that and see if there are certain tweaks we can make. We absolutely would do that but that’s where we’re at today.’’

O’Donnell also said that the 2018 schedule is expected to be released this week.

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