NASCAR Camping World Truck Series | Ford EcoBoost 200

Oh, baby! What a year for NASCAR Trucks driver Matt Crafton


Matt Crafton, who calls his baby daughter his lucky charm, will secure NASCAR’s 2013 Camping World Trucks championship Friday night.

Special to the Miami Herald

The child arrived before the championship.

The relevance of one to the other is subject to speculation. The only opinion that counts is that of Matt Crafton, proud father and soon-to-be proud champion.

Crafton, a pro’s pro but only a three-time winner in 315 career starts in the series, will secure NASCAR’s 2013 Camping World Trucks championship Friday night by simply firing the engine to start the Ford EcoBoost 200 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elladee Ann Crafton, born to the 37-year-old driver and his wife Ashley on April 26, will forever be credited with a significant role in Dad’s altered fortunes and the dramatically upgraded career portfolio.

“She’s my lucky charm,” Crafton said by telephone from Phoenix last week. “I won Kansas and [six] days later I became a father, and ever since then we’ve been the points leader.”

He uses the collective “we” to encompass ThorSport Racing owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson, crew chief Carl Joiner Jr. and the rest of those who crew and prepare the No. 88 Menard’s Toyotas that Crafton has steered to a career-defining season.

Incidentally, Elladee attended Crafton’s next race, after a timely three-week calendar break in the 22-race season that has rewarded Crafton’s persistence and patience as well as his skill.

“She didn’t go out of the motor home,” Crafton said with a chuckle, “but she was at Charlotte, absolutely.” He drives the motor home to almost every race.

On the track, he said, the focus becomes that much sharper because he’s racing not only for victories, for Ashley, and for the owners, sponsors and crew, but for “that little person who relies 100 percent on you.”

The joy of fatherhood, he said a couple of weeks after Elladee’s birth, has been “way, way more than I ever, ever thought it could possibly be.”

It was in the third race of 2013 that Crafton made a record-breaking 297th consecutive series start, eclipsing a mark set by Terry Cook. Start No. 298 produced the Kansas victory that, with a subsequent points penalty to ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter, propelled Crafton to the top of the drivers’ standings. He grabbed that lead and ran with it.

He finished fourth at Charlotte, second to Kyle Busch at Dover, Del., and fourth again at Texas to create a cushion that had grown to 48 points after three more top-10 finishes, a staple of Crafton’s climb to a career peak. Indeed, he has finished outside the top 10 only twice all year in 36 truck races.

Crafton has nurtured that points cushion since as if it were the key to Fort Knox and has a 46-point cushion over 21-year-old Ty Dillon. Only by failing to start would he give Dillon an opening. He also has kept 23-year-old defending champion James Buescher at bay by tempering aggression with wisdom.

Crafton laughed. “The points racing kind of stinks,” he said. “It’s awesome being the leader, but at the same time you’re on your heels, trying to be smart, trying not to get run over and trying to do all the right things to put yourself in the correct position each and every week.”

Rest assured, he has happily adapted. For so much of a NASCAR trucks-racing career dating to a debut in 2000 and full seasons from 2001 forward, Crafton has primarily been a small-typeface line in race boxscores. He has been relevant almost always on the race track but only occasionally in postrace headlines.

“We’ve been there before,” he said. “We’ve been close.” He finished second in points to four-time champion Ron Hornaday Jr. in 2009, fourth in 2010 and fifth in both 2004 and 2008.

In fact, this becomes the ninth season in the past 10 that he has finished in the top 10 in points. Except for 2005, when he drove for Kevin Harvick’s truck team, all have been with the Thorsons.

Though not without a desire to move up in class, Crafton has reached a great comfort level in what is essentially NASCAR’s third-tier national season.

However, he did compete in three Nationwide races this year, thanks to sponsor Menard’s association with Richard Childress Racing, and he posted two third-place finishes at Kentucky Speedway and a 10th at Chicagoland.

The leap into Camping World championship contention this year did not take Crafton or ThorSport Racing principals by surprise. For 2012, the team not only had shifted from the Chevrolet camp to Toyota, but crew chief “Junior” Joiner came on board. He and Crafton worked together during Crafton’s 2000 championship in NASCAR’s Southwest touring series.

Crafton did finish sixth in points in 2012, but that was a transition year. “Where we were off,” Crafton said, “Junior was learning what the trucks needed and we both were learning what the Toyota needed” in terms of chassis setup.

They learned those lessons well and carried late-season momentum into a rewarding 2013 climb to truck racing’s peak.

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