AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Crafton an intriguing wild card in championship chaseWith a dozen races left in the Craftsman Truck Series season, a half-dozen drivers are separated by 110 points. It's mostly the same 40-and-over crowd that has dominated in recent years, from recent champions Ron Hornaday Jr. and Todd Bodine to the consistently in-the-hunt Johnny Benson. There's no guarantee that the old guard will prevail again, however. Matt Crafton, the wild card of 2008, is one point out of the lead and showing he may be out for more unfinished business than just winning a race. The 32-year-old ThorSport Racing veteran, now in his eighth full season, erased a career-long point of frustration in May with his first career win at Lowe's Motor Speedway. It moved him up to fourth in points, and had the season ended right there, it would have been his finest. But why stop there? "The way it is in racing, you've gotta ride the wave," Crafton said. "The momentum wave is what we've got going, and hopefully we can keep that going the rest of the way." The wave has brought four top-5s since his win, including a stretch of second-third-third finishes in his past three starts. His worst finish since the win is a 15th at Michigan. Overall, he has seven top-5s in 13 races (which ties him with points leader Benson), a career high, topping his six in 2004. From 2005 to '07, he had a total of seven top-5s. It's been that kind of season, as it obliterates everything else Crafton had done in the series' eighth-longest career by starts. So why not add a title? "You never know. You've got to keep doing what we're doing, put yourself in position every week. If we can keep doing that, we'll be all right," Crafton said. Still, a championship from the No. 88 would be the most improbable in series history. The most unlikely champ may have been Bobby Hamilton in 2004, racing in his second full truck season, but his 2003 season in which he had two wins and a sixth-place points finish showed his mettle. What makes Crafton's title chase unique is how he is attacking it from near the front, not in front. He led 10 laps in his win but has led only one other lap all season, a performance reminiscent of Ted Musgrave's title in 2005. He led laps in just four races (185 laps total) and won one. Travis Kvapil won in '03 with only 49 laps in front, though he led in 11 different races -- a key for collecting bonus points. Benson and Hornaday (five points out of the lead) have led in nine and 11 races, respectively, and they've led the most laps in two and four races. Crafton knows he has to start competing in that department, preferably Friday night at Indianapolis. "We've got to lead laps, we've got to get to where we qualify better," said the California native, who owns a series-best 8.8 average finish but a pedestrian 16.5 average start. "We tested all day Monday [at Jennerstown, Pa.] making our short-track package a little bit better. The short-track package is good on long runs, but we cannot fire off, we can't qualify it for some reason. It takes that truck three laps to get going, and then it's fast." It's not quite accurate to say it took seven years for Crafton to get going. Now he's fast, but he's enjoying the ride. For someone who has never made a start in NASCAR's top two series, this truck season could finally open those doors. "That was the difference when I raced on the West Coast [in the NASCAR Southwest Series]. I had won races, but finally when I started putting consistency together, winning races on a consistent basis and running top-5 each and every week and winning a championship that year , the phone started ringing a lot," Crafton said. "That's the difference." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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