Matt Crafton captures Eldora Dirt Derby with late surge

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ROSSBURG, Ohio – Matt Crafton picked a fine time for his first victory on a dirt track.

The two-time Camping World Truck Series champion took the lead with 16 laps remaining and ended a yearlong winless drought with a victory Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway.

“This definitely wasn’t the one that I thought was going to put us in the playoffs, without a doubt,” Crafton said. “I was looking to come in here and have a top five – a good solid top-five run.  Kept searching and finally found something at the end.”

Crafton seized first from runner-up Stewart Friesen, who started on the pole position and led a race-high 93 of 150 laps in the Eldora Dirt Derby. Chase Briscoe was third, followed by Grant Enfinger and John Hunter Nemechek.

It snapped a 27-race winless streak for Crafton, who hadn’t won since May 21, 2016 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the 14th career victory for the ThorSport Racing driver, who has finished in the top 10 in all five races at Eldora (though Wednesday was his first top five here).

It was only the 15th career start for Friesen, who has struggled in his first full-time season racing in the trucks. He had finished outside the top 25 six times in the first 10 races and withdrawn from two events.

“It would have been super important,” the Canadian veteran of dirt Modifieds and the World of Outlaws series said of breaking through for a NASCAR win. “The first seven races probably are the most frustrating I ever have been a part of in my life. To run good and be in the top five is good, I just wanted to close it out. It’s a little bit of a silver lining but not much.”

The Canadian continued a trend in which dirt-track veterans have excelled against the truck regulars on the half-mile clay oval, but some said Eldora raced differently.

Briscoe, another sprint car veteran, said the bottom groove worked well enough that drivers weren’t as on the edge of out of control and sliding off the corners.

“There wasn’t as much of a cushion you had to hustle,” Briscoe said. “That’s where the dirt guy has an advantage over the non-dirt guys.”

Crafton has turned himself into a “dirt guy,” investing his own money in running a Modified on dirt tracks this year. He rebuilt a car with his father earlier this year and studied the nuances of running up against the wall.

“It helped a lot,” he said. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.

“Since I was a kid, I always heard about Eldora and watching the guys the last few years put the thing on the fence. I came committed to run the top and give up the bottom. I’m going to run the top when it matters. It’s one of the greatest wins I’ve had because it’s something so out of the ordinary.”

STAGE WINNERS:  Crafton won a caution-plagued first stage. Friesen was in front at the end of the second stage.

HOW CRAFTON WON: His No. 88 Toyota avoided a multitude of wrecks that collected more than a dozen drivers in the field, powering past Friesen on the outside lane.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Christopher Bell, who won here in 2015 and finished second last year, rebounded to finish ninth after sustaining heavy-right side damage from losing control of his No. 4 Toyota off the third turn on the 36th lap. “We had the truck to win, and I made a mistake that cost us,” Bell said. … Bobby Pierce, who led a race-high 102 laps last year and was the 2015 runner-up to Bell, placed sixth despite being involved in two crashes in the first 20 laps (after also wrecking during a qualifying heat).

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ben Rhodes finished a season-worst 29th after getting caught in a wreck on Lap 43. … Rookie Kaz Grala was 31st after a wreck near the end of the first stage.

NOTABLE: Bell and Pierce had combined to lead 247 of 300 laps in the past two races at Eldora but led 22 on Wednesday. … The race was slowed by 10 cautions for 59 laps (just off the record of 61 yellow-flag laps for 13 cautions in 2015).

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “It should be called the demolition derby not the dirt derby because our truck is destroyed.” – Rhodes, who was involved in a wreck near the beginning of the second stage.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Overton’s 150 will take place July 29 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch ends the season No. 1

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The 2019 season is over and Kyle Busch is the NASCAR Cup champion. And not surprisingly, the younger Busch brother also ends the season as No. 1 in this week’s Power Rankings.

Busch received 39 of 40 possible points to take the No. 1 spot, followed by the other three Championship 4 contenders: Martin Truex Jr. (35 points), and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (tied for third place with 28 points each).

The biggest surprises in this week’s standings were Xfinity Series champ Tyler Reddick in fifth and Gander Outdoors Truck Series champ Matt Crafton in sixth.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Finally gets that second title. Last week: Second.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (35 points): Inexcusable pit mistake left him as the championship runner-up for the second year in a row. Last week: Fourth.

(tie) 3. Denny Hamlin (28 points): Came so close to his first championship, only to be fall short yet again. Could this be the closest he’ll get? Last week: First.

(tie) 3. Kevin Harvick (28 points): Needed a bit more help than he got going against the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut. Still, a very strong season regardless. Last week: Third.

5. Tyler Reddick (18 points): It’s hard enough to win one championship, but back-to-back championships with two different teams? Last week: Unranked.

6. Matt Crafton (14 points): Wins the championship without even winning a race (in fact, his last win was more than two years ago). Thrived on his underdog status. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Blaney (12 points): Finished 11th or better, including a win at Talladega, in five of the last six playoff races. Last week: Fifth.

(tie) 8. Joey Logano (11 points): Ends year with four consecutive top 10s, but he fell short in making it to the championship round and defending last year’s title. Last week: Eighth.

(tie) 8. Erik Jones (11 points): Ends season with four top 10s in last five races. That bodes well for next season. Last week: Seventh.

10. Christopher Bell (6 points): Missed his chance to add an Xfinity title to his Truck championship. Still, with eight wins, had an outstanding season. Up next: a promotion to the Cup Series. Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: Kyle Larson (5 points), Clint Bowyer (5 points), Cole Custer (4 points), Austin Hill (2 points), Brad Keselowski (1 point), Brett Moffitt (1 point).

Zane Smith joins GMS Racing for full-time Truck Series ride

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Zane Smith will compete full-time for GMS Racing in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series next year, the team announced Tuesday.

Smith, 20, joins the team after competing part-time with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series this year, where his best result in 10 races was fifth twice.

He will be GMS Racing’s fourth full-time entry next year, joining Brett Moffitt, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum. Sam Mayer will compete part-time.

Smith will have veteran Kevin “Bono” Manion as his crew chief.

“When I got the offer from Mike Beam asking me to run a truck full-time for GMS Racing, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Smith said in a press release. “GMS is a championship-caliber team and to be a part of an organization like theirs is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with Manion again. He has a lot of experience and I know we will be a great team.”

Manion, who has 24 wins across all three national NASCAR series since 2003, joins GMS Racing after serving as a crew chief for DGR-Crosley in 2019, including working with Rookie of the Year Tyler Ankrum. Manion was crew chief for Smith in 2018 when he made his Truck Series debut at Gateway and finished fifth.

“I am really excited to join GMS Racing and Zane (Smith) for the 2020 season,” Manion said in a press release. “With GMS Racing’s championship caliber equipment and Chevrolet support, we have all the resources to win some races and be in the hunt for the 2020 Championship. I got the opportunity to crew chief Zane (Smith) in his first Gander Trucks start in 2018 at Gateway and we worked really well together. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish next season.”

Sponsorship and an assigned truck number for Smith will be announced at a later date.

Penalty report from Homestead-Miami Speedway

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NASCAR issued four fines and one suspension for lug nut violations during its championship weekend in Miami.

Cup Series

Mike Wheeler, crew crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

Xfinity Series

Mike Shiplett, crew chief on Cole Custer‘s No. 00 Ford, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Truck Series

Steve Lane, the owner of On Point Motorsports and crew chief on Danny Bohn‘s No. 30 Toyota, was fined $5,000 and suspended one points race for two unsecured lug nuts. The No. 30 truck competed part-time this season and made 16 starts. The team told NBC Sports it will not appeal the penalty.

Trip Bruce III, crew chief on Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet, was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

Other

NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension to Jeffrey Schmidt for violating its substance abuse policy.

Truck Series gets minor name change for 2020

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Four days after the end of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, NASCAR announced the series will receive a minor name change for the 2020 season.

The series will be called the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series when the season starts in February at Daytona International Speedway.

This is the second name change for the series in two years.

This season saw the name change from the Camping World Truck Series, which had been the title from 2009-2018.

Gander Outdoors and Camping World are owned by the same company.

Next year will also see a different name for the Cup Series. With the series going to a new sponsorship model, it will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.