After Daytona crash, Crafton looks for redemption at Atlanta
Coming off of Turn 2 with the race lead, Matt Crafton was just about ready to give himself the NextEra Energy Resources 250 trophy last Friday night.
The two-time Camping World Truck Series champion had never won at Daytona International Speedway in 16 attempts.
I think the fans and everybody are going to love it
Matt Crafton on stage-racing
With a push from ThorSport Racing teammate Ben Rhodes on the final restart, the No. 88 Menard’s Toyota was in lead on the white-flag lap. Then all hell broke loose. Crafton’s Tundra went flying into the air and slammed nose-first into Johnny Sauter’s Chevrolet.
“Ben gave me a great push coming down the back straightaway,” Crafton said on SiriusXM Radio. “We did everything right at that point. We were in position to win. I thought I finally got that Daytona monkey off of my back. And then it was, ‘Uh oh. No we don’t.’ “I watched it all happen. I was looking in the mirror. In speedway racing, you look in your mirror as much as you look out the window, especially when you’re leading the race.
“We were three-wide and had Johnny in the middle. We were sucking him out of the hole, we were getting rid of him. I was looking in the mirror, saw the 27 (Rhodes) get sideways and I should have turned left. I didn’t think he was going to get me. I was literally a foot from being clear. He caught me about a foot on the right rear corner. They all felt really bad about it. It was none of Ben’s doing. He just got pushed a little harder than he needed to be pushed.”
Twelve trucks were collected in the final melee. When the smoke cleared, Kaz Grala raced off to his first series win to become the youngest victor at Daytona in any of NASCAR's top three touring series. Crafton was scored 14th in an event that 29-percent of the race was run under caution. The average green-flag run was 11.8 laps.
“That race was chaos the whole time,” Crafton said. “I was up front at the beginning of the race, running side-by-side and these guys and kids were just slamming into each other like they were playing a video game. That’s the best analogy I can give you. It was chaos.
“So I went to the back with some of the wilier veterans like Regan Smith and Joe Nemechek. John Hunter (Nemechek) was even riding back there with us. I knew I had a fast Toyota Tundra with 20 to go, and I knew it was time to go. We drove it up front and put it in position and got caught up in the big one.”
The two benefits Crafton derived from the incident were media coverage for his sponsor and a positive experience with NASCAR’s new concussion protocal. John Menard, founder of sponsor Menard's, told his driver the exposure was great — just not the ultimate result he was looking for. On the medical side, Crafton was comforted by the familiar faces who attended to him following the wreck.
“They did a very thorough check,” Crafton said. “They checked my heart rate and they were pretty blown away that my heart rate was as low as it was after what happened there. They did all the procedures, pushed on all my limbs everywhere. Asked if I was hurting anywhere and if so to come back.”
Crafton felt fine the next morning despite his truck pile-driving into Sauter. Fortunately for Crafton, Sauter’s truck absorbed the impact. Had it not been below Crafton when he landed, he would have nose-dived into the asphalt. The former teammates have been friendly rivals outside of their trucks but remain fierce competitors on the track. Crafton joked, “Damn, it was about time that Johnny Sauter did something for me on the race track. But if we had landed dead-flat on the asphalt, that would have hurt a lot worse. But Johnny softened my blow — and it was about time. It’s about time he stepped up.”
Crafton is also encouraged with the new stages NASCAR introduced into competition. He definitely witnessed a change in the complexion of the races, particularly coming to the end of each segment.
“I think the fans and everybody are going to love it,” Crafton said. “It was about three to go in the first stage and I was running 10th. These guys, kids just stepped it up like they were racing to the checkered flag for a million dollars. They were all over each other. And they finally wrecked each other coming to the end of the first stage and I was like, ‘Wow. If this what it’s going to be like every week, then these fans will really have something to watch.”
With the truck tour racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, Crafton, who is currently 13th in the standings, knows he has some catching up to do. Sauter finished 15th at Daytona last Friday, one position behind Crafton. Under the new points system, Sauter won the first two segments and received bonus points for his effort. But Sauter still trails Grala by 14.
The goal is to win
Crafton is facing a 33-point deficit rolling into the second of 23 events. However, he’s encouraged entering Atlanta, where his record of one win, four top fives, eight top 10s and 171 laps led are the best on the truck tour.
“I have to go win, period,” Crafton said. “At the end of the day, you go win and the points will take care of themselves. That’s what we plan on doing. That is my favorite race track. I absolutely love that race track. That worn out asphalt. I’m sad they’re tearing all that old asphalt up.
“But hopefully, I can win that race, stay till Sunday and cut a piece of that asphalt out and take it with me. That’s how motivated — and how much I want to win that race. I want to take a piece of asphalt and the trophy home with me.”
Grala wins first Truck race after violent last-lap wreck
BKR’s Take on Trucks: Crew chief Mike Hillman Jr. talks new gig