Crafton eyes history with 3rd NASCAR Truck Series title
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) Matt Crafton had the luxury of winning one NASCAR Truck Series championship just by starting the race and grabbed a second title by finishing in the back of the pack.
Under the revamped Truck playoff system this season, Crafton just may have to win the race to win it all.
Crafton, the 2013 and 2014 series champion, should be the favorite to win Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the first year of the Truck Chase format. The 40-year-old Crafton faces Johnny Sauter, Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters in the championship field. The first to finish out of the four contenders is the 2016 champion.
Crafton, third in the standings last year, could have an edge because he won here last season, his first win on the 1.5-mile track. He has two wins this season and finished second and third in each of the last two Chase races.
Crafton, in the No. 88 Toyota for ThorSport Racing, can join Jack Sprague for second on the career Truck series championship list with three. Ron Hornaday holds the series record with four titles.
Crafton did not finish five races this season and likely wouldn't have competed for a championship under the old system.
''I wasn't a fan of (the Chase) at the start of 2016 when they said it, but now I'm a big fan of it because I'm getting to race for a championship,'' he said.
Crafton and the other three championship drivers all caught a break when William Byron, who won six times and was the heavy championship favorite, blew an engine with 10 laps left at Phoenix and was eliminated.
ThorSport Racing, owned by Duke and Rhonda Thorson, could use a championship as an emotional boost just months after a fire damaged much of the team's race shop in Sandusky, Ohio.
''The shop is not running at 100 percent. It's still not all there,'' Crafton said. ''I knew it was going to hurt us a little bit, but I didn't realize it was going to hurt it as bad as it did. It definitely put a damper on the way we ran because at that point we were just on a downward spiral.''
Yet, here are Crafton and ThorSport, resilient to the end.
Crafton has remained content racing trucks as most of the rest of the field uses the series as the start of a methodical climb toward a Sprint Cup ride. He has one career Cup start, four in the second-tier Xfinity Series and 13 wins in 383 career Truck starts.
''I'm very happy to finish my career out here,'' he said. ''I mean, yes, I would like to race the races in the Xfinity Series or run Cup races if I was on the right equipment. But if you're not going to be in the right equipment, you're not going to be able to contend to win. I really don't care to do it.''
He has the right equipment this year - and the best accessory could be a championship trophy hoisted over his head.
SAUTER FOR THE WIN
Joey Logano has paid attention to the Truck title race while pursuing his own NASCAR championship. His pick for series champ?
''I'm a Johnny Sauter fan because he's awesome,'' Logano said.
The 38-year-old Sauter had a career year driving the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS Racing with three wins, 11 top-five finishes and a dominant run in the Chase. Sauter won back-to-back races in the No. 21 Chevrolet at Martinsville and Texas, and was runner-up last week at Phoenix. Sauter has three top fives, six top 10s and a 4.7 average finish over seven Chase races. He was second in the standings in 2011 and finished fourth in each of the past three years.
Logano may think Sauter is the driver to beat. Sauter won't go that far.
''I don't ever consider myself the favorite,'' Sauter said. ''I feel really comfortable with where we are as an organization and as a team going into this race. But to say I'm a favorite, that would not be doing ourselves a service.''
BELL TOLLS FOR TITLE
Bell, who has one win this season, drives the No. 4 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, picked Bell to win the championship and but he may nail his prediction. The 21-year-old Bell shook off a slow start thanks to a pep talk from his championship owner.
Bell recalled Busch telling him: ''Look, you've got great equipment. You're a talented racecar driver. Everything will come together. You just got to stop trying to make it come together.''
Bell rebounded and reeled off top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight races.
''Do I consider myself the underdog? No,'' Bell said. ''Does everybody else? Probably. I think we've got everything it takes to be successful at Homestead. Our year has definitely not been the year that we've wanted. We've only won one race. But we're going to make it two after Friday.''
Peters is the only championship driver without a win this season. He's been steady with eight top-five finishes in the No. 17 Toyota for Red Horse Racing. The 36-year-old Peters has advanced this far with an underfunded team that has failed to sign a primary sponsor.
''Maybe tomorrow night we can cap off this big championship and attract the eyes of some sponsors and get it on our Tundra going forward in 2017,'' he said.