Most of you have heard the name, but for those who don’t know, Matt Crafton is a two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. He has 14 race wins in 421 starts across more than 19 years spent in the Truck Series. Most of his career has been spent driving for ThorSport Racing, aside from 2004 when he signed on with Kevin Harvick.
But before his NASCAR career took off, Crafton, like many other drivers, began racing early and eventually an opportunity came knocking at his door for a Truck Series ride in 2000.
“My racing career got started when I was about seven years old, racing go-karts until I was about 15, then I started racing micro-midgets,” Crafton said. “Then I started racing asphalt super late models when I was about 18-years old and then from there, went straight from that and won championships in that Southwest Tour, and I got a Truck ride with Duke and Rhonda Thorson and the rest is history.”
With ThorSport Racing being a huge part of the Tulare, California native driver’s career, he explains why the relationship has been so special and how it had a major impact on his racing career.
“Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) have been so, so loyal, such good people to work with them,” he said. “There’s so many people in the business, it’s just so hard to trust. You always hear the nightmare stories that people come and go, but Duke is a man of work and there’s not many people I can say that about in this sport that I worked with or being around. They’ve been great people to work with, Rhonda as well. Everything they’ve said, they have done.”
During Crafton’s 19 career Truck Series seasons, he drove for NASCAR Cup Champion Kevin Harvick for one year in 2004. He explains how that opportunity came about and how he met Harvick.
“I actually used to race against Kevin (Harvick) out in the Southwest Tour,” the No. 88 Menards Ford driver said. “We raced against each other, were competitors. His dad was my dad’s crew chief a couple of different times out there in the west coast and then raced go-karts. My very first go-kart came from Kevin’s dad that ended up getting me that. Worked with my dad to get that kart and we raced together for a little bit, and then he moved up, got a Truck ride first, then shortly after that, I got my first Truck ride.”
The Truck Series has been a mainstay in the two-time champion’s career with a few starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and one start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He explains why the Truck Series is so special to him and why he has been in it for so long.
“I love the Truck Series,” Crafton said. “I’ve had opportunities to go race other places, but they haven’t been good. At the end of the day, I’m with Duke and Rhonda, and I know each and every week they can go win races and contend for championships. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t know, I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day where we talked about racing in the Xfinity and Cup Series, not doing it any different.”
“People lose sight of why they do what they do in the series,” he said. “When I was seven-years-old, I started racing because I loved to win. I wanted to win races and I didn’t care about anything else, except winning races. And so many people lose sight of it, where they want to move to the Cup Series to go out there and run 25th, and say that’s a good day. You know, they can make more money that way, but at the end of the day, last time I checked, it was about bringing home the trophies and winning races, going to the track and having fun, knowing that you can get it done.”
Crafton’s first start in the Truck Series was at Fontana in 2000, where he started 17th and finished ninth. Fontana is no longer on the schedule, but Crafton wishes it was.
“Oh god, I definitely wish Fontana was back on the schedule,” Crafton said. “It’s such an awesome racetrack. Especially now, since the asphalt is so much older and just to see the Cup races and Xfinity races, where they get to run the bottom of that track and to the top of the track right up against the fence. I mean, that’s so much fun.
“It just reminds of the big Atlanta, where you get to move to multiple lanes and so much better than the new asphalt racetracks, where you get the single grove racetracks.”
During the Truck Series early years from 1995-2000, the Truck Series ran at a variety of tracks. The fans and some drivers want to go back to those older tracks. Crafton gives his take on what should be done to the schedule and what should be changed.
“I still definitely have mile and a half racetracks,” he said. “I would get rid of a few of them and add some more short tracks. Go to IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), go back to Milwaukee (Mile), run Sonoma, run Mid-Ohio, you know, Elkhart Lake, just road courses. Just change things up. That’s what the problem is. I know the schedule, we do too much of the same thing and it just bores some of the fans. It’s just because you’re doing the same mile and a half tracks and we could go to a road course, sell the place out and have 100,000 people come in, and the writing is on the wall there.”
When the Truck Series isn’t racing, Crafton continues to keep busy at his own shop in Mooresville, North Carolina.
“I’m at my shop in Mooresville, North Carolina,” Crafton said. “I have my own shop and we’re building dirt cars together and working on racecars. I love to dirt race. Right now, I have a lot of fun and get to go hang out with family, and it’s just a lot of fun getting laps and always be there.”
Crafton follows up with how the dirt racing opportunity comes about.
“The first Truck Race,” he said. “A friend of mine, they ended up offering me a ride in a modified and I raced a handful of races, and went on to Eldora and did that for three years. I loved it and I had a lot of fun doing it, but I just wanted to have my own and built the perfect blend of science and racing on dirt to asphalt, and so I went to buy my dirt car last year, worked a lot on it, studied a lot on it, went on to win Eldora last year. And this year, we definitely had a truck capable of winning, just a few more laps at the end, I would have come from 17th to fourth in that last segment and felt like we were one of the fastest trucks on the track, but just ran out of laps.”
With switching from dirt racing to truck racing, there isn’t that much you can apply skill wise as Crafton explains.
“No,” he said. “Just aside from maybe you can use a little more car control, but at the end of the day, they’re so drastically different. That’s why I chose the dirt car to try and figure out to go win that golden shovel because I needed to protect that skill I had there.”
The 2018 season has been uncharacteristic-like, to say the least, for the two-time Truck Series champion. It’s almost a replica of his 2012 season. So far, Crafton has no wins, only five top fives and seven top-10 finishes. Crafton explained why they haven’t been to victory lane yet this season.
“We haven’t been as consistent,” he said. “We’ve been trying a lot of new stuff and working on different setup stuff, and just mechanical problems. That’s been a thorn on our side. Like Las Vegas, the third race of the season, we came on pit road and stood on the brakes coming to the pits, and sheared all of our studs off the brake caliper, something that’s unheard of. And then we go to St. Louis, lose an alternator 15 laps into the race, and we just had so many, just dumb mechanical failures.”
Times have changed throughout NASCAR’s history. In the early years of the series, there were seasoned veterans like Ron Hornaday, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague, and the list goes on and on. Now, it’s Crafton and Johnny Sauter with the most of the series is comprised of young stars using it as a stepping stone to the next series.
Crafton gives his take on what he thinks of stars moving up too fast.
“They definitely move on very fast without a doubt,” he said. “The dollars are just hard to come by right now. They’re hard to come by with sponsorship, so a lot of the younger ones come with some sponsors and make the things go.”
It was recently announced that the Truck Series will be renamed to the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Series in 2019 replacing sponsor Camping World. Crafton elaborates on what the series and sport could look like 10 years from now.
“It should be good,” Crafton said. “If they start switching up the schedule and changing up the schedule, and doing different things, it would definitely be a very good thing. I mean, there isn’t one race this year, when the trucks have been a short field. We’ve had a full field every race, there have been plenty of races where we sent trucks home this year. So, for some of the other series they can’t say the same thing.”
While Crafton is a seasoned veteran with a 19-year career, he has no quit in him anytime soon.
“I would like to do it for quite a while longer, really,” he said. “I would love to continue racing. Ron Hornaday did it until he was 50 something years old and he was wearing a lot of these young drivers out. Wearing us out too. If you still have the itch, you still want to go and make it happen, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Carl Joiner Jr. has been the crew chief on Matt Crafton’s No. 88 Menards Ford F-150 for a long time now. Crafton explains why they work so well together.
“We believe in each other at the end of the day,” Crafton said. “I mean, that’s what it’s all about in this sport. Just believing in each other and he believes me when I tell him the truck is doing this, and I believe he can make all the right changes. I know there’s been times we’re not going to get it right away, but that’s happened this year. We’ve been on a new tire this year, the majority of the places the tire the cup cars are on, and it’s a different tire than we were on last year and all of our old setup stuff just hasn’t been working with what we used to run.”
“So we’ll just keep working on that and we’ll get one by the time the season is over, if not a few.”
Whenever Crafton hangs up the belt for the last time in his career, up until then, it will be no different than what he is doing now.
“Just to win more championships and races,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Over the span of Crafton’s career, he has made 421 starts collecting 14 wins, 107 top fives and 249 top-10 finishes, along with 13 poles and 2,491 laps led. And he’s not finished yet.
You can follow Crafton on Twitter.