Scratch of 7-year itch gets racer thinking title

Matt Crafton had long passed the point of doubt creeping into his head and, instead, had entered a battle to keep the uncertainty from overwhelming him.

For more than seven years and 177 races, Crafton had competed in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series.

And for more than seven years and 177 races, Crafton had yet to see the inside of victory lane.

”There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't think about when am I going to get the first win or am I ever going to get my first win,“ he recalled.

But since the evening of May 16, those daily doses of skepticism have ceased to exist for Crafton. Remarkably enough, they've been replaced by constant reminders of how close he is to becoming a series champion.

Years of frustration came to an end for Crafton, 32, when he earned his first career triumph in 178 Truck Series starts at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Crafton's drought was the longest any driver had endured before earning his first series win. The previous stretch was 111 races by Bryan Reffner in 2000.

To say that first victory changed Crafton's life would hardly be overstating its significance. Not only has he ascended to second in the season standings, but he also goes about his job with the kind of ease and confidence he hadn't experienced since entering the series full time in 2001.

”The crew had joked that it was getting a monkey off our backs, and I said it wasn't a monkey, it was a gorilla,“ laughed Crafton. He has already matched his career high for top-five finishes (six) in 12 starts this year.

”It was just a ton of weight off my shoulders. I had led so many races in past seasons and had chances to win and it was always like something seemed to happen, something would go wrong.

”Once I got that win, it made me a different person. It made me a happier person to be around.“

Crafton, in fact, has closed to within 27 points of series leader Ron Hornaday heading into Saturday's Built Ford Tough 225 at Kentucky Speedway.

While this season may go down as a watershed moment, Crafton hasn't exactly emerged from nowhere to suddenly attain his level of success.

During his rookie season in 2001, Crafton notched 11 top-10 finishes, a mark that stood as a career best until 2004. That's when he finished fifth in the standings with 17 top-10s while driving for Cup Series star Kevin Harvick.

Despite that breakout season, Crafton had a not-so-amicable parting with Harvick's team at year's end, and he reunited with ThorSport Racing, the squad that gave him his start in 2001.

”Things just didn't work out,“ Crafton said of his release from Harvick's team. ”It wasn't going the way he wanted, and he wanted to make changes and that was fine by me.“

Since returning to ThorSport, Crafton has posted at least 10 top-10 finishes in each of the last three seasons.

While they didn't find victory lane together until May, ThorSport owners Duke and Ronda Thorson gave Crafton the support system he needed as his winless skid became more infuriating each week.

”I couldn't ask for greater owners and greater people. There is not a day that goes by that I don't talk to Duke,“ Crafton said. ”Every year we've gotten better and better, and they've given us everything we need to win races and compete for championships.“

Aside from his newly minted addition to the win column, the biggest change in Crafton this year has been in his consistency.

Since finishing 24th in the season opener at Daytona, Crafton has been outside the top 15 once (21st at Kansas).

”That's all we're thinking about now is being consistent,“ the California native said. ”It's miserable when you're running top-five one week and 18th the next week, and we've run like that the last few years.“

Kentucky has been one of the kinder tracks for Crafton. He has posted four top-10 finishes in his last five outings at Sparta.

And as he and his crew begin the second half of their season, they can focus on gaining a coveted title rather than trying to end a streak of futility.

”I've got the win and that's awesome, but at the same time we have to keep putting ourself in position to win,“ Crafton said. ”If we can consistently be in position to win then we'll have a chance to run for a championship.“