By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A quiet, and frustrating season takes a backseat as Matt Crafton clinched the final playoff spot after Thursday’s UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, beating ThorSport Racing teammate Myatt Snider by 115 points.
Crafton said he’ll be working on improving his No. 88 Great Lakes Water Water Floors/Menards Ford F-150 during the playoffs after having off performances throughout the regular season. Notably, an off night on pit road when the jack fell off, costing him track positions.
“We’ve been off a little bit at the beginning of the year. We’ve had some good runs, we’ve had some bad runs,” said Crafton. “Tonight we just had crap for track position. Worked our way up. Lost a bunch of spots on pit road. Worked our way up, and then stabilized, and then starting going through there at the end. I was just hoping they would run another 50 laps because if we would’ve had track position, we could’ve ran with the guys up front.”
Not only Crafton had a tough moment in the pits, he was also involved in an a accident when Norm Benning, who failed to make the 32-truck field, made contact in the pits during qualifying, and had to settle for the 18th starting spot.
However, he believes that Thursday’s top-10 effort is just the beginning for his quest of a third championship.
“We had a problem in qualifying, and then have the tires equalized. I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know if anything else can go wrong this year,'” said Crafton. “I was waiting for that big scoreboard to fall on me at some point, especially this year. We never gave up, everyone of these guys, we just keep digging, keep digging. I know were going to be a threat to be reckon with here in these next three (races). I know we can win more races, and I know we can all do it. We have a great group of guys.”
The two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion was running top-five lap speeds while running inside the top-10 with less than 50 laps remaining, and slowly worked his way up the running order, passing the likes of Brett Moffitt and Ben Rhodes.
Todd Gilliland, who was involved in an incident with Jesse Little early in the race, was catching Crafton with 15 laps to go, looking to pass Crafton for 8th. It seemed Crafton was going to hold Gilliland off, but on the final lap, the 18-year-old passed Crafton, Rhodes and Justin Haley to finish fifth.
However, it wasn’t enough as he needed to win the 250-lap race to eliminate Crafton, who had to settle for eighth, and scored his ninth top-10 after 16 races.
Up until the final quarter of the race, Crafton struggled to stay in the top-10 as he was looking to score his first win of the season. The driver who was on the bubble, and holding onto the eighth and final seed finished in 12th and 11th during the first two stages.
Crafton added that the top lane would become the preferred line at the end of a run, but it was bottom lane dominant for much of the night because of the “Bristol Bite” they’ve added this year.
“(The top) would come in and get better at the end of a run, but at the beginning of a run, everybody would run the bottom, bottom, bottom,” said Crafton. “Some people couldn’t migrate up, and when it was time I moved up, and I passed a few people. The last set of tires we just got a little bit tight, but it was very very good.”
The 42-year-old will start the playoffs trailing regular season champion and race winner Johnny Sauter by 39 points as the Round of 8 commences on March 26 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada for the running of the Chevrolet Silverado 250.
In five previous starts, Crafton finished second to Erik Jones in 2015, and finished inside the top-10 in four of those races. However, Crafton will look to improve on his personal worst 25th place finish when he lost an engine last year, completing 46 out of 64 laps.