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 He had finished outside the top 25 six times in the first 10 races and withdrawn from two events.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.