Crafton rewards ThorSport Racing with drought-ending win at Charlotte

Updated: May 22, 2008, 3:13 PM ET

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Matt Crafton's 177-race winless drought went up in smoke last weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Crafton, ThorSport Get Validation With Win

Matt Crafton used to have the same nagging thoughts that other crew chiefs, team managers and staff who came and went through ThorSport Racing's doors had.

The epicenter for Craftsman Truck Series teams, like the vast majority in NASCAR, is the Charlotte, N.C., area. Simply being there doesn't make a team great, but in terms of access to personnel, engineering help and just being "in the loop" of the rest of the racing world, it doesn't hurt.

Yet here was ThorSport Racing, going about its business year after year in Sandusky, Ohio, a world away.

"Duke Thorson, he had people try to persuade him in every possible way to move this deal, saying 'The only way you're going to be successful, the only way you're going to be competitive, is to move,'" Crafton said. "There were definitely times I thought it."

Yet owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson never imagined anything but staying in Ohio, and Crafton stuck with them. Friday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- in Concord, N.C., the heart of NASCAR world -- the outsiders got rewarded.

Matt Crafton winning was one thing, certainly no small feat for a driver who had competed in a record 177 races prior to Friday without a win. He desperately wanted to get that weight off his back and move on to bigger goals, such as chasing a championship.

But the win at Lowe's also brought validation to ThorSport, the only full-time truck team based outside the North Carolina/Virginia NASCAR corridor. A fixture in the series since 1998, it won a race that first year with Terry Cook at the old Flemington (N.J.) Speedway but hadn't won another in 10 years. Along the way, it was sometimes hard to overcome the obstacles of being out of the loop.

"Say, for instance, the jack man quits or you fire him and you've got to go race the next week," Crafton explained. "If you're in North Carolina, it's so much easier to put that search out to get people to move, to basically roll their tool box across the street. When you're in Ohio, it's hard to convince them to just take this job and pick up and move their homes and their families."

Yet ThorSport did, going through its share of personnel like any other team but eventually establishing itself as one of the most stable in the garage (it fields two full-time trucks, for Crafton and second-year driver Shelby Howard). The payoffs are visible now, with a winner's trophy going home to Ohio and a team sitting fourth in the standings with three top-5s in the first six races.

"Duke dug his heels in and said 'No, we can make this thing successful in Ohio," Crafton said. "He's definitely proving everybody wrong."

Crafton and the No. 88 team have been in the picture for a while, with top-10 points finishes in three of the past four years. What they haven't always had is a full stable of Chevrolets developed in time for this part of the season, a seven-week stretch of racing in which the contending teams emerge.

"Ron Hornaday [of Kevin Harvick Inc.], you think he goes out and worries about tearing up his truck and having to not bring back a good piece next week? That's the way we were last year, if we tore something up, the piece that we were going to have to bring to the racetrack next week wasn't going to be near as good as the one that we brought that week," Crafton said.

Now third-year crew chief Bud Haefele has a fleet of seven trucks at the ready, including a short-track Chevy for the team's home-state race this weekend at Mansfield, Ohio. It puts ThorSport on a more level playing field with the likes of KHI, Bill Davis Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, with a driver who should also be in the conversation with the series' best.

"I watched his career develop, I think he's always done an awesome job. I know what he was up against," said Rick Crawford, whose Circle Bar Racing team was based in tiny Cleveland, Ga., in its early days. "My hat's off to the whole team; to do that outside the hub of NASCAR is a compliment in itself."

Crafton soaked up the praises of many drivers last weekend as Crawford, Hornaday, Travis Kvapil and Kyle Busch were a few of those who either visited in Victory Lane or called the nine-year veteran. The 31-year-old California native had finally crossed a professional and mental threshold, allowing him to focus on bigger goals.

"It's a big positive for us to know that you've got that win out of the way," Crafton said. "Now you can worry about the championship."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Busy Month For Busch

Kyle Busch

Busch

Kyle Busch and the rest of the Sprint Cup regulars who dabble in the Truck Series will be absent this weekend from the Ohio 250, with the Nationwide and Cup cars running concurrently at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Busch, a winner twice in the trucks this season and the pole-sitter last week at Lowe's, leading a race-high 86 laps before finishing eighth, will fall out of the top 10 in points to at least 13th by missing Mansfield. But he's going out of his way to make other races on the schedule, like the June 6 date at Texas Motor Speedway. That weekend, Busch will drive the Friday night truck race, a Saturday night Nationwide race at Nashville, Tenn., and the Sunday Cup race at Pocono, Pa.

"Does it make sense? No," he said.

Debuts Planned For Mansfield

Derrike Cope

D. Cope

John Wes Townley will make his series debut for Roush Fenway Racing in the No. 09 Zaxby's Ford at Mansfield, the fourth driver of that truck this season. Townley, 18, will miss his high school graduation ceremony in Georgia to race.

The son of Zaxby's co-founder Tony Townley, John Wes is fifth in ARCA points, running a full schedule in that series. Last year he ran a few Hooters Pro Cup events, including Mansfield, while mostly driving ASA Late Models in the southeast. His team manager was Joey Clanton -- the original driver of the No. 09 at the start of the season before being released after the opener at Daytona.

Also making a first truck start at Mansfield is Angela Cope, 24, the niece of 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope. The elder Cope's new two-truck team has raced at Kansas and Charlotte, with Jennifer Jo Cobb and Michelle Theriault driving at Kansas and Derrike Cope and Nick Tucker at Charlotte (Tucker failed to qualify). Angela Cope is entered to drive the No. 73 Dodge at Mansfield, Derrike Cope the No. 74 Dodge.

If the No. 73 qualifies, it will be the fifth start by a woman this season. Erin Crocker and Chrissy Wallace have also raced, with Crocker posting the best finish so far, 14th at Daytona. Eight women, including Crocker, raced in the truck series in its first 13 years.

Standings