HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Matt Crafton may not have won the battle Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he took home the biggest prize of all at the end of the Ford EcoBoost 200.
Crafton took home his third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship with a runner-up finish, coming 1.569 seconds short of a race victory but topping the 23-race, season-long grind.
The Tulare, Calif., veteran took control of the championship fight on a lap-55 restart – after title rival and early leader Ross Chastain spun his tires and slid back – and never relinquished it again after that.
Crafton stayed ahead of his fellow Championship 4 competitors – Chastain, Brett Moffitt and Stewart Friesen – for the remainder of the race, dominating the final stage in terms of the title tilt and running away by more than nine seconds following a decisive round of green-flag pit stops inside of 40 to go.
It was a dominant performance when it mattered most, considering that Crafton had only outperformed the other three members of the Championship 4 in one race all season long prior to Friday night.
“This Menards F‑150 was fast tonight. That first run, I thought we were in trouble, but we just made air pressure adjustments from there,” Crafton said. “We tightened her up, because we thought the track was going to be green and it was going to go away, but this thing ran flawless all night. The motor was very good, as well, and everything just went our way.
“I was praying there. I did not want a yellow at the end of this thing, and luckily it stayed green and we got the job done.”
Friday night’s effort made Crafton not only the first winless champion in Truck Series history, but also the first driver in any NASCAR national series to win a title without winning a race since the dawn of the elimination-style, winner-take-all playoff format.
In that way, as well as a few others, it was an anomaly of a season for Crafton.
He became the driver with the fewest laps led in a season (44) to hoist the championship trophy, and he also had the fewest top-five finishes (eight) of all the Championship 4 drivers throughout the season.
But none of those numbers mattered after the final race, Crafton said. He got the last laugh anyways.
“Everyone called us the underdog,” Crafton noted. “I heard (Truck Series analyst Todd) Bodine and everybody (in the media) say I was the underdog and I didn’t have it, and we fought harder because of all that. I guarantee that every one of these guys worked harder because of those comments.
“It was that little jab in my side, and I don’t think I really needed it, but it ticked me off and I got up on the wheel,” he added. “I wanted to prove everybody really, really wrong that didn’t think we could do this and didn’t think we could take home this title, and we got it done. We are the champions and it’s a damn good feeling, I can tell you that much.”
Crafton’s third title draws him level with Jack Sprague (1997, 1999, 2001) for second all-time in terms of Truck Series championships, and puts him just one crown behind series kingpin and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, who won four Truck Series championships (1996, 1998, 2007, 2009) in his career.
After telling reporters during Championship 4 Media Day on Thursday that his ultimate goal is to match – and possibly surpass – Hornaday’s Truck Series records, Crafton reiterated that motivation in the moments after securing his third championship on Friday night.
“We’re one step closer to what Hornaday’s done, now,” Crafton said with a smile. “That’s what it’s all about at this level, is to say you have what Ron Hornaday has. When people talk about the Truck Series, the first person most people think of Ron. I want to have an opportunity to match that.
“Hornaday was whooping all of us into his 50s, and I’m nowhere close to that yet. I’m coming back for more, you can bet on that.”