Darrell Wallace Jr. got the instant cheers as he crossed the finish line first in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Ford EcoBoost 200, but it was Matt Crafton, as expected, who won the season series and walked away with not only cheers but the long-lasting recognition that comes with a yearlong championship.
To make it even better, with the series triumph at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Crafton became the first driver to win back-to-back titles in the 20-year history of the Truck Series Championship.
Both race winner Wallace, 21, and season winner Crafton, 38, exited their cars smiling after the yellow-flag-filled race.
Season winner Crafton said, “To say I made history with the back-to-back, that is definitely very, very cool. In fact, it’s awesome.”
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Wallace had similar sentiments.
“This is really cool … this is special,” he said.
“It was a great race at the end,” Wallace recalled of the trucks going almost four-wide at the finish. “I’m just going to try to relax. Then maybe I’ll try to go break 100 in golf. Well, OK, that golf thing isn’t going to happen.
“But, whatever, this is really cool … this is special.”
Wallace, nicknamed Bubba, covered the 200 miles and won his fourth victory of 2014 at an average speed of 113.790 mph in his Toyota; Crafton, also in a Toyota, won the season series over Ryan Blaney by 21 points.
Crafton managed his car for most of the race in an approach some would call being cautious, and others would call being smart. Starting off in the sixth position, Crafton never pressed the issue, hovering somewhere in the top 10 for virtually the entire race.
An early accident or breakdown were the only things that could keep Crafton from the series championship, so he played the part of a perfect gentleman, giving plenty of leeway and maneuvering space to his fellow drivers.
On Friday, the only person with a possibility of catching Crafton for the season title was Blaney, who needed to win and have Crafton finish worse than 21st. So Blaney knew the odds were stacked against him.
Beforehand, Blaney said, “We’re 25 points back, and Crafton has to have some problems for us to win.”
However, it was Blaney who ran into problems.
On the 73rd lap, coming out of the pits, Blaney’s truck stalled and his gearshift mechanism snapped.
Desperation calls for desperate measures, and Blaney could be seen attaching vise-grips to the shift lever.
Blaney continued racing and actually moved up in the standings, climbing into the third spot at one point.
Meanwhile, Crafton was avoiding drama and managing a much more conventional ride.
Crafton showed his usual steadiness, an attribute he has displayed in surplus for the past two years.
In winning the 2013 title, Crafton won one Truck Series race but was in the top 10 in 19 of 22 starts and made the top five in seven events. This season, he had 13 top fives in 22 races with two wins.
Not bad for a guy who started his first full season in 2001 and finally managed his initial victory eight years later in 2008. That interminable stretch without a win bestowed upon Crafton a record he would prefer not to have — 178 starts before recording his first victory.
Like many NASCAR drivers, Crafton started his racing career at an early age — really, really early. Already showing a strong interest in racing and speed, Crafton was presented with a go-kart by his parents when he was seven-year-old as a present for graduating kindergarten.
After that, it was off to the races, so to speak, and 31 years later Crafton hasn’t stopped.