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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?

Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series

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The $100,000 bounty on Kyle Busch has its first contenders.

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson each confirmed Thursday evening on Twitter that they’ll take a shot at the bounty placed by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis last week.

Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.

The declarations by the two drivers came the same day that Busch said he didn’t believe any full-time Cup Series drivers would go after the bounty.

Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.

“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”

Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.

“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”

There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.

Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:

The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.

If Elliott or no other Cup driver beats Busch in those four races, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”

Kyle Busch: $100K Truck Series bounty is a losing proposition

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Kyle Busch doesn’t believe any full-time Cup Series driver will attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty placed on him last week by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis.

Harvick and Lemonis, the CEO of Truck Series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, said they’d award that bounty to any full-time Cup Series driver who is able to beat Busch in any of his four remaining Truck Series starts this year.

Busch, who has won the last seven Truck races he’s entered, sees the challenge as a losing investment, especially if someone attempted it in one of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Toyotas.

Thursday on the Barstool Sports’ “Rubbin’ is Racing” podcast, Busch said it costs $140,000 to rent one of his Trucks for a race.

“Right off the bat (it’s a losing proposition),” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. Nobody is going to pay the 140 grand to rent a truck, whether it’s from me or from somebody else. (Show co-host Clint) Bowyer didn’t tell you the fact he can’t even rent a truck from me because I’m a Toyota team and he drives for a Ford team. So he has to go find a Ford truck in order to drive. So there’s those complications that fit into all of this, too.”

Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, expressed his interest in the bounty, as well Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who said he was “working on” a deal.

After his win last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s four remaining Truck Series starts are:

March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

March 27 at Texas Motor Speedway

May 30 at Kansas Speedway.

If no one beats Busch, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

James Hinchliffe will call into the show to discuss his new role as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar, Indy Lights, IMSA and NASCAR.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Auto Club Speedway’s old surface provides ‘moving target’ for drivers

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Auto Club Speedway has a lot of character.

It’s a character that comes from the 2-mile track’s racing surface being among the oldest on the NASCAR circuit.

The surface hasn’t been repaved since the track first opened in 1997. That’s the same year that the surface for Atlanta Motor Speedway was last resurfaced (a planned repave was put on hold indefinitely in 2017 after outcry from drivers).

In the 23 years since, races at the track in Fontana, California, have turned into producers of multi-groove spectacles (especially on restarts) that come at the cost of high levels of tire wear.

The aged surface provides a “moving target” to drivers throughout the race weekend, according to Tyler Reddick.

“During the start of the weekend, you have to watch for the seams since it’s so slick out there,” the rookie Cup driver said in a media release. “Normally, the Xfinity cars are the first ones on the track, so I’m normally very careful. Now that I’m in the Cup Series, it may be a little different. I think this weekend will be fairly similar to Las Vegas where we started out running wide open, and I’ll have to run like that until the handling starts to go away in our No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet (and) you have to start lifting. Then it’ll be important to assess why the handling is changing and how to adjust our car correctly to battle that.”

Cup and Xfinity teams only visit Auto Club Speedway once a year and this will be the second year they’ll do so with the high downforce aero package.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones believes Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a “different race” from the one seen last year.

“Going into Fontana last year, no one really knew what we needed car-wise, balance-wise and this year we have a whole notebook to look back on to try to get better,” Jones, who finished 19th in last year’s race, said in a media release.

“I think there will be a lot more lifting, the cars will be faster. Everybody has just gotten their cars better and more efficient and faster on the straightaways and that makes for more lifting in the corners. It will probably be a little different race, but Fontana is always a good show.”

But that show depends on where a driver chooses to run around the track.

Racing along the top of the track compared to running in the bottom lane proves for “two completely different types of racing” according to defending race winner Kyle Busch.

“You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack,” Busch said in a media release. “You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”

When it comes to how rough the track is, Matt DiBenedetto cites how bumpy Turns 3 and 4 are, but said in a media release that traversing the “back straightaway is like going over jumps.”

But just like with the old surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are those who never want to see Auto Club’s surface actually improve.

“I did an appearance at Auto Club Speedway not too long ago and I told the track officials, ‘Whatever you do, don’t repave it!'” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “Or, wait to repave it until you can figure out how to make an asphalt that is very similar to what is on the track now.”

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