26-year-old Justin Lofton finally found his way to victory lane for the first time in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, after winning the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 Friday night race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It's been a long time coming,” admitted Lofton, who has had 55 starts in the series before claiming his maiden win.
Lofton had started the race on the front row of the grid alongside polesitter Ty Dillon, who led for the first 25 laps of the 134-mile, 201-lap race on the 1.5-mile paved oval considered to be the 'home' of NASCAR itself.
After a series of early cautions - the first being a spin for Brennan Newberry across the path of David Reutimann on the frontstretch, the second for oil on track dropped by Ross Chastain's truck, and the third for an accident by Daytona winner John King in turn 4 on lap 25 - James Buescher claimed the lead at the restart on lap 31 ahead of Brad Keselowski, Johnny Sauter, Ty Dillon, Ryan Sieg, Matt Crafton and Jason Leffler. Lofton had already dropped way back.
"The truck was not bad on the very first start of the race, I just had that bad a [start] and fell back that far," Lofton said later.
Keselowski soon took the lead from Buescher but was himself deposed from the front by Ron Hornaday Jr. before the next caution on lap 72 for a second spin of the night for Newberry in turn 4.
An accident in turn 2 on lap 85 saw a spin for Paulie Harraka who caught the back of Buescher's truck, with David Reutimann getting drawn in; Justin Lofton was back in front for the restart and for the next 33 laps through a debris caution.
But Keselowski remained the main threat and was in front again by the time Nelson Piquet Jr. exited the race on lap 121 in a hard hit against the wall on turn 1 that brought out the penultimate caution of the night. That left Keselowski and a fuel-stretching Lofton squaring off at what looked the crucial restart of the night on lap 125 that was then restaged just moments later after a brief debris caution intervened.
Given his form earlier in the night, no one was banking on Lofton to nail the restarts: “I had terrible restarts all night,” he admitted. "The first two restarts we had we were trying some different stuff and I didn't know how to start," he added. But he was a quick study: "The stars aligned, I figured out what I needed to do."
When it mattered, he found his restart mojo and was able to pull away from Keselowski both times for the win.
"I think I had some help from Ron Hornaday, when he and Keselowski got in a little battle," he said. Once I got out front, I knew I was okay. There was a short amount of laps left that I knew I could stay out front. I surprised myself, definitely."