Matt Crafton, at 38 the personification of “grizzled veteran,” must look around him in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series garage at times and wonder if his primary rivals aren’t skipping school.
On a double-file restart following a caution period late in the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix last week, Erik Jones lined up alongside Crafton’s No.88 Menard’s Toyota. Jones is 18. He looks younger.
Two more teenagers prepared to stomp the gas pedal in the second row, including Cole Custer, who at 16 years, seven months and 28 days became the youngest winner in the history of NASCAR’s three national series two months ago.
At least Ryan Blaney, the lone remaining challenger in Crafton’s quest for historic back-to-back truck championships Friday night in the Ford EcoBoost 200 finale, has advanced out of his teens. But barely. He will turn 21 on Dec.31.
The youngsters are passing through, stair-stepping toward what they ambitiously hope will be successful careers in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series. But the Camping World Series has become Crafton’s turf.
There’s much to be learned in the series, and much veterans such as Crafton, Timothy Peters and four-time series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. can teach those who are just cutting their racing teeth.
Blaney, a budding star in the Penske Racing firmament, is a third-generation racer whose father, Dave, highlighted Stage One of his career with several open-wheel sprint-car championships, most notably in the famed World of Outlaws in 1995.
A latecomer to stock car racing, Dave Blaney, 52, has spent stage two of his career futilely attempting to make a mark driving for well-intentioned but severely underfunded Sprint Cup teams. His best finish in more than 450 starts has been third place, three times.
Ryan Blaney, who has won not only in Brad Keselowski Racing’s No.29 Cooper Standard Ford truck but also in the next-rung-higher Nationwide series this year, has benefited from the wisdom his father has absorbed through triumph and travail and passed along.
“He told me when I was real young, ‘The smartest guys are the most successful,’” he said by telephone last week. “So I’m always trying to learn. I’m always trying to process as much information as I can, whether it’s trying new things inside the cockpit, or knowing more about the car or giving more useful information to the crew chief.”
Obviously, he’s a quick study, which is why prominent team owner Roger Penske latched onto him. Blaney won in a Nationwide car in only his third career start at Iowa Speedway in 2012.
His education has continued as he has engaged in hot pursuit of Crafton for the Camping World championship. That’s not entirely out of Blaney’s reach. But Crafton needs only to finish 21st or higher Friday night to clinch, even if Blaney were to win and score maximum points.
“I really, truly like Ryan,” Crafton said about his young challenger. “He definitely is a class act to go out there and race with each and every week.”
“Absolutely,” Crafton responded when asked if he perceived future stardom at the sport’s highest level in Blaney. “As long as he’s with the right teams. There are a lot of good race-car drivers that have come and gone [because they] weren’t in the right seat.”
Clearly, Blaney has a coveted seat with the Penske organization.
As with his father, what Ryan Blaney might best learn from Crafton is the persistence and will to survive the sport’s inherent potholes along the way.
Crafton has paid heavy dues to get to the Trucks Series pinnacle. His first full season was in 2001. His first victory came in 2008, his second in 2010. For years, he had as many finishes outside the top 10 as inside.
But everything fell into place for Crafton and the ThorSport Racing team last year. He won once but finished in the top 10 in 19 of 22 starts and in the top five seven times. He built a big points lead that forced him into conservation mode. It would have been foolhardy, he said, to “go out there and drive like an idiot and be accused of giving [a championship] away.”
His approach changed this year because “I have the trophy on the shelf.” It is as if he has been unleashed. He has run up front far more frequently, bidding for wins instead of points. He has two and would have more except for Cup star Kyle Busch, who periodically drives for his own team and has pirated away seven victories. Crafton, however, has been rewarded for his aggressiveness with 13 top-five finishes in 21 races.
Blaney’s 2015 schedule will include at least a dozen Sprint Cup races driving the iconic Wood Brothers No.21 in an alliance with Penske Racing. He also will compete part-time in the Nationwide Series and Trucks Series.
Crafton? He plans to be at the wheel of the No.88 Toyota not just next year but for as long as owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson will have him. He’s aging like the best wine and in a series he contends has “the best racing in NASCAR, hands down.”
Jokingly asked if he could stick around as long as Hornaday, whose career has wound down at age 56, Crafton said: “I hope to hell I do. If I can go that long, I’m only halfway through my career.”