- John Schwarb
- 0 Shares
Matt Crafton remembered his first win in the NASCAR Southwest Series as if it was yesterday. You don't forget ones like these.
"Matt just shows really good truck control; he's a talented driver. He's been in situations we've had as a team where we've been changing crew chiefs or doing something, and in the last year or two we've settled in to where we have a real good group. We're aligned to get a win."
-- Duke Thorson
The finish line was in sight in 1998 at Cajon Speedway in El Cajon, Calif., but the then 22-year-old wasn't about to take it head-on. Instead he careened through the infield on two wheels, kicking a storm of dirt into the air at the 3/8th-mile track but emerging victorious and unhurt.
It was an ugly win, though Crafton knows perfectly well that there really isn't such a thing in motorsports. After seven dry years in the Craftsman Truck Series, he would take ugly, pretty, photo-finish, Clint Bowyer-upside-down-and-on-fire, whatever.
Anything to put an end to what is close to becoming a record drought.
Crafton will make his 150th CTS start next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, inching closer to a dubious mark. Lance Norick raced 154 times from 1996 to 2002 without a win in the trucks, and Crafton could surpass him in June.
Needless to say, it wouldn't be a milestone worth celebrating.
"It honestly [ticks] me off more than anything," said Crafton, who drives the No. 88 Menards Chevrolet for ThorSport. "I think about it every day, it aggravates me. Everything I ever raced before, I won in.
"But I've talked to a few other drivers, they say it will come. Jack Sprague (a 28-time series winner), he's told me that it will happen. We've run too good for it not to happen."
Crafton is off to one of his better starts, sitting ninth in points after finishing a career-best eighth at Daytona and 11th at California. He sees it as a natural progression from last year, where he was getting used to a new crew chief in Bud Haefele.
Even with the new face atop the pit box last year, Crafton turned in four top-5s and finished 14th in points. In 2005 he was ninth in points and won his first pole, at New Hampshire.
"Matt just shows really good truck control; he's a talented driver," said owner Duke Thorson. "He's been in situations we've had as a team where we've been changing crew chiefs or doing something, and in the last year or two we've settled in to where we have a real good group. We're aligned to get a win."
ThorSport is one of the series' cornerstone teams, ranking third in all-time starts with 244. The team broke into Victory Lane in its third year when Terry Cook won at Flemington, N.J., in 1998. Then, late in 2000, it found its driver for the future.
Crafton, the Southwest Series champion in 2000, got a one-race audition with ThorSport in the season finale at California and finished ninth, earning a full-time ride for the following season. He kept it through 2003, then moved to Kevin Harvick Inc. for 2004.
The No. 6 Chevrolet was KHI's first full-time entry in the series, and Crafton didn't do anything to disgrace it, finishing fifth in points, running at the finish of all but one race and recording six top-5s.
It was Crafton's best season, yet he wasn't rehired by Harvick. Ron Hornaday Jr., a teammate of Harvick's in 2004 in the Busch Series with Richard Childress Racing, got the No. 6 the following year and continues driving for Harvick today (now in the No. 33).
"It was really a building year, I thought we did pretty well. I led a lot of laps, a lot of races," Crafton said. "I honestly don't know what happened, I haven't gotten a true answer."
Instead of possibly climbing the ladder toward Busch and Cup rides with Harvick (Crafton has yet to make a single start in either series), Crafton ended up back with ThorSport. It was a comfortable reunion.
"We kept in touch, I said 'you're welcome back any time,' " Thorson remembered. "We basically started anew again here."
Crafton, now 30, is a veteran mentor, showing teammate and rookie of the year candidate Willie Allen the way around acquired skills like the draft at Daytona.
"Matt's a great guy, he knows his stuff," said Allen, who finished 22nd at California. "Anything I need to ask him, he's open to it. I can't imagine coming into the series and not being able to talk to someone like him."
Of course the one topic Crafton would love to not talk about anymore, the elephant in the garage if you will, is the win drought. He's convinced the discussion will become moot at some point this season, maybe as soon as the next race.
"I wouldn't count Atlanta out, we ran really good there last year," he said. "We've had a really good flat-track and short-track program too, so I would say look for one of the mile-or-under racetracks. Maybe even Nashville -- they always say you'll win at the track you hate the most."
Cajon Speedway, Crafton adds, was never one of his favorites either.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.