Matt Crafton relishes Daytona 500 run for friend Kyle Busch

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Only 18 hours after he was first contacted to drive in Sunday’s Daytona 500 for injured friend Kyle Busch, Matt Crafton was about to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start.

As the field ran behind the pace car before the start of Sunday’s race, Crafton said the moment hit him.

“Wow, we’re in the Daytona 500,’’ Crafton said. “That’s pretty cool.’’

Crafton finished 18th, a large stripe along the right side of his car a sign of the contact he had with the wall in the last-lap crash that cost him a better finish. Still, he walked away smiling from his experience.

Joe Gibbs Racing needed a driver for its No. 18 Toyota after Busch suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a fracture in his left foot in a crash during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

The phone calls to Crafton at about 7 p.m. Saturday began a whirlwind trip that sent the two-time defending Camping World Truck Series champion to JGR’s shop to be fitted for a seat, and then to Daytona International Speedway.

His first laps in the car were those pace laps.

When the green flag waved, Crafton stayed toward the back, getting a feel for his car. It wasn’t until past the halfway mark that he began to play in the pack.

“I had better try to make some friends,’’ Crafton said of moving into the pack. “If we’re going to be there at the end, I want them to start to trust me. I thought we were in pretty good shape, we were around some pretty good cars. I got shuffled out on the last lap. All of a sudden, somebody lost it on the bottom and they all cleaned us out on the top.’’

He also got to experience three-wide racing in a Cup car.

“I promise you I had a blast,’’ he said. “I was smiling from ear to ear the whole time I was doing it.’’

He just wishes NASCAR would have reacted differently on the final caution.

“They kept the green out for so long when we were buried in the fence and so many of them kept going by on the inside, I was like ‘Throw the yellow, throw the yellow,'” Crafton said.

Even so, he scored a top-20 finish in his first start.

As for what’s next? That remains uncertain.

Car owner Joe Gibbs did not provide a timetable for Busch’s return on Sunday morning before the race. Gibbs also would not say who will drive the No. 18 car this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.