It took Matt Crafton 45 laps to reach the front of the field on Saturday evening, but once he got the lead he proved to be unstoppable, able to switch to cruise control on his way to clinching his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 14 attempts.
See full race results from Atlanta Motor Speedway
The reigning series champion - who last week was called up by Joe Gibbs Racing to sub for the injured Kyle Busch at short notice in the Daytona 500 - had started from 15th place in the Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 after a disappointing qualifying saw him miss out on the final top 12 pole shoot-out round, but the #88 ThorSport Racing proved a different animal entirely in race conditions.
"I was really, really disappointed in qualifying," Crafton admitted. "It didn't have a whole lot of single-lap speed by itself, but I knew once they dropped the green flag and this thing took off and we ran three laps, I'm like, 'we've got something for these boys, they're in trouble today.'"
As the sun set and the floodlights came on, Crafton was able to lead all but one of the last 86 laps of the race, and while GMS Racing's Ty Dillon did his best to keep Crafton honest in the later stages there was in truth very little competition about it.
Atlanta is a favourite track for Crafton despite his never having won here before, and also for his crew chief Carl Joiner Jr.: "As a little kid watching the Atlanta Journal 500 on Sundays with my dad, I'm just so pumped," he said. "I'm so proud of these guys. We're in victory lane in Atlanta and we put it on 'em."
Red Horse Racing's Ben Kennedy had earlier been handed pole position for the start of the race after his lap of 31.378s (176.684mph) on the 1.54-mile oval was the only time actually posted in the final round of qualifying. Brad Keselowski had led the others who had made it through to the pole shoot-out in a game of pit road chicken against the clock, only to end up cutting it too fine.
Although Keselowski was initially credited with a time that would have handed him pole, a subsequent review showed that he had actually started the lap after the session had officially timed-out, meaning that his effort was disallowed and pole duly awarded to Kennedy. The order for the rest of the top 12 was set according to their times in the previous round of qualifying, with Kyle Busch Motorsports' Erik Jones awarded the shotgun slot on the front row next to Kennedy.
Kennedy led for just the first lap before Jones took charge for a spell that included the first two of the race's three cautions in total. The first was for Ray Black Jr. getting loose and spinning coming out of turn 4 on lap 12, while the second saw Mason Mingus spin out in turn 2 on lap 18.
Keselowski opted to stay off pit road to pick up the lead for the next restart, but that proved a bad call as he quickly faded on the older tyres. He would eventually have to make a green flag pit stop that resulted in a penalty for driving through too many other pit boxes and left him off the lead lap, a handicap he was never able to overcome for the remainder of the race.
Keselowski's position at the front had quickly been taken back by Jones, and the race was finally able to settle down to a decent spell of caution-free running. That proved to be just what Matt Crafton needed to pick his way through the field, finally passing Jones at the front to take the lead for the first time on lap 45. A caution followed shortly after on lap 51 when Cody Ware wrecked in turn 1 and Timothy Peters simultaneously also blew a tyre. In the ensuing pit stops Jones lost eight places after overshooting his pit stall and needing to be pushed back into position by his pit crew, which left him on the back foot for the rest of the day.
Instead it was Jones' KBM team mate Daniel Suarez who pressured Crafton hard at the restart and even managed to lead a lap, but then Crafton put his foot down and was soon pulling out a formidable lead. Ty Dillon moved into the runers-up spot on lap 90, but with no more cautions to close up the field any hopes he had of cutting into Crafton's lead soon evaporated and when the chequered flag did finally come out there was a gap of nearly nine seconds between the first and second place trucks.
Despite being a two-time champion in the Truck Series, this was only Crafton's sixth actual race win in 340 starts. Behind Ty Dillon, pole sitter Ben Kennedy kept plugging away and picked up a solid third place ahead of Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick, with Johnny Sauter finishing in sixth ahead of Erik Jones. James Buescher was the first car to finish a lap down in eighth after that extended green flag run to the finish, ahead of Timothy Peters and Joe Nemechek who rounded out the top ten.
Saturday's win kickstarted Crafton's defence of his series title into life after a comparatively nondescript eighth place in the first round at Daytona last week. Crafton moves up into second second place just two points off the current championship leader Tyler Reddick who had previously won the season opener, while Erik Jones is five points further back in third place.
The Camping World Truck Series now takes a month off before the next round of the 2015 season at Martinsville on March 28.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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