(WOMR file photo)
As strong as he was in winning Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200, Matt Crafton was already looking ahead to 2016.
Crafton, whose hopes for a third consecutive NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship were dashed by a crash at Phoenix last week, won his sixth race of the season, holding off John Hunter Nemechek and Tyler Reddick in the season finale.
Although Crafton’s No. 88 Toyota Tundra finished 2.9 seconds ahead of Nemechek and more than six seconds ahead of Reddick, the 39-year-old veteran still wound up third in the point standings, 15 behind 19-year-old Erik Jones.
“I was having so much fun there at the end of this race,” said Crafton after his first career victory at HMS. “Six wins with as many laps as we’ve led–it’s been awesome this season. We just made too many mistakes. I made too many mistakes. … I promise one thing: It’s going to make us stronger in 2016.”
Crafton said he was happy to be able to “take the gloves off” and go all out for a win at HMS. “That was lot of fun,” he said. “It’s amazing what Junior (crew chief Joiner) can do with these trucks. On that last run, we hit a home run there.”
Ultimately, Kyle Busch’s eye for youthful talent paid off as Jones did what he needed to in becoming the youngest driver ever to claim a CWTS title (19 years, 5 months, 21 days) and first NASCAR Next alum. He also became the first to win a driver’s title for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“He put it to me when he beat me in a Super Late Model race,” recalled Busch, who will race for the Sprint Cup title on Sunday. “I tend to pick up on the talent of younger kids. Actually, the first time he raced against me, he blew my doors off, then blew up 40 laps later. I said, ‘Good. I don’t have to race (against) this one.’”
There was no blowing up Friday night.
Jones entered the race 19 points ahead of Reddick, his nearest competitor, and 32 points ahead of Crafton, the Keystone Light Pole-sitter. Making his first HMS start, Jones needed only to avoid trouble and finish 15th or higher to claim the series crown.
Jones, who notched three wins this season and has seven career CWTS victories, finished sixth in the race behind Ben Kennedy and Timothy Peters. He qualified fifth and was content to race safely and efficiently, remaining in the top 10 for most of the race and avoiding any calamity on the track.
“I can’t think of a better way to repay these guys. I can’t think of a better ending than that,” said Jones, who expects to drive full-time in the XFINITY Series for Joe Gibbs Racing next year after parts of three seasons with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“Eric’s done a lot of growing up in a short period of time,” Busch said. “I’m glad he stuck with me and our plan. I think he has a lot of bigger and greater things ahead on his plate.”
NASCAR Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next alum Daniel Suarez appeared to have the strongest truck early in Friday’s race, charging from sixth to the lead. But Suarez slid up the track into the truck of Dexter Stacey on Lap 61, falling back to 15th, then found the wall again on Lap 83.
That left Crafton in position to dominate the race. He led 93 of the 134 laps, leaving NASCAR Next driver Nemechek (Chevrolet) and Reddick (Ford) in his wake to battle for second.
Reddick, driving for Brad Keselowski Racing, started fourth and advanced to second behind Crafton with 40 laps to go. But by then, Jones, who briefly slid back to 14th after a caution flag shuffle, had rallied to seventh, keeping Reddick, also a 19-year-old driver, at bay in the chase for the title.
“We were very consistent this year. I’m proud about that,” Reddick said. “We just have to move on to next year. I know what second place feels like and I really don’t like it too much. If I didn’t have enough reasons to win a championship, I’ve got one more.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!