No one knows Texas Motor Speedway better than NASCAR Camping World Truck Series reigning champion Matt Crafton, who has now competed in 29 races at the venue - more than anyone else in the starting line-up for this week's WinStar World Casino & Resort 400.
CLICK: Full race results from Texas Motor Speedway.
It might have taken him 26 attempts to get the hang of it in the first place, but after he broke his duck with a fuel mileage win here one year ago in which he led for 118 laps and set a new series track record of 13.302s for margin of victory, Crafton seems to have unlocked the secret of winning on the 1.455-mile high-banked oval. While this year's race wasn't quite as emphatic as it had been in 2014 - he led a 'mere' 77 laps in total this time around, still a race-high among the field - the 38-year-old nonetheless looked calm and collected throughout, and always seemed to have proceedings well in hand as others fell away.
"Last year, just getting that first cowboy hat was very sweet, but all the victories are great," Crafton commented. "Last year in this June race, it was really, really different than what I'd seen in the past. Usually when you're here, you can run quite a few laps wide-open and I bet there wasn't a total of five laps the whole weekend wide-open. It's a lot slipperier and the racetrack is getting a lot more age on it. It's definitely changing and I think it's changing for the better." Or certainly in his favour, as the evening could certainly attest.
Even so, it had been Kyle Busch Motorsport's Erik Jones who led the field to the green flag on Friday night after having earlier captured his fourth pole in 24 Truck starts and his second of 2015 with a lap of 29.822s (181.074mph) that had seen him 0.115s faster than Crafton. Jones briefly lost the lead to Crafton shortly after the start but quickly regained it, only to lose it again on pit road under a caution for debris on lap 19. Jones swiftly put that to rights at the restart and went on to lead for the next 48 laps, although some of those were run literally neck-and-neck with Crafton before he finally managed to pull out a decent safety margin, while Brad Keselowski Racing's Tyler Reddick and Jones' team mate Daniel Suarez squabbled over third place behind them.
Jones' run at the front came to an end when he pitted on lap 84 under a caution for Spencer Gallagher spinning out in turn 1. As well as the usual fuel and tyres, the #4 also needed a new battery - and precious seconds were lost as the team tried to locate a spare, putting him a lap down. Worse still, the new battery did not resolve the truck's electrical issues and it took two more goes over the course of the race all of which ended up demoting Jones two more laps down, although he would eventually get at least one of those back from a free pass for an eventual 15th place at the line.
With Jones out of the way for the night, Crafton was finally able to enjoy a decent spell of his own at the front, while Suarez now took up second place ahead of NTS Motorsports' Daniel Hemric. Tyler Reddick was also looking to make himself a factor at the front, but a near-miss with Red Horse Racing's Timothy Peters on pit road on lap 127 ended up with Reddick getting handed a pit lane speeding penalty for his pains. Peters was himself the trigger for a caution on lap 143 when the #17's Toyota engine took up the dangerous habit of smoking and then dropped fluid on the track for good measure requiring a clean-up.
When the race resumed on lap 150, Crafton was still in the lead ahead of Suarez, Hemric and Johnny Sauter. Suarez had the chance for one big push on Crafton that included some near-contact between the pair before Hemric blew a tyre to bring out the fifth and final caution of the night on lap 160. This time Crafton was able to hold on at the restart which heralded a final two-lap sprint to the finish line, by which point he had pulled half a second clear of Suarez.
“I had a blast racing with Daniel there at the end,” said Crafton as he celebrated his third victory and seventh top ten finish of 2015. "We were literally running in the centre of the racetrack and up against the wall in turns 3 and 4, and you really have to work the throttle and drive the thing.
"The restarts were hairy," he admitted. "We got a pretty good start on that last one and ran side-by-side-by-side. We're happy for sure, but not satisfied."
"At one point I thought we got it for a second. But, man, he's good. He's got a lot of experience," said runner-up Suarez. "I felt we were a little loose on the bottom. It was fine to race side-by-side for a few laps with new tyres but with old tyres it was either to wreck or to try it and I was close a couple times and I didn't want to wreck and throw away a good second-place.
"The last thing I wanted to do was wreck that fast truck - I like to bring complete trucks back to the shop," he continued. "I'm not sure if I could do something different there. I need to see what Matt did, what I did, what I could do better, what I could do faster. Like I said, I do my homework and try to be better for the next time."
Behind Suarez, John Wes Townley picked up third place for Athenian Motorsports ahead of Johnny Sauter. Austin Theriault picked up fifth place for Brad Keselowski Racing ahead of Joe Nemechek (SWM-NEMCO Motorsports), Cameron Hayley (ThorSport Racing), Justin Boston (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and Daniel Hemric, with Ben Kennedy crossing the line in tenth place for Red Horse Racing as the last man till on the lead lap.
“The last caution was the break we really needed,” said Townley. “Before we had a bad set of tyres and fell off quite a bit. Didn't quite have it for Crafton, so congratulations to him. It is nice to get a career-best and definitely be showing progress. We're getting better and better."
Tyler Reddick was the first man a lap down in 11th after suffering something of a nightmare on pit lane during the race with multiple penalties and a stalled truck as he tried to to exit the stalls.
Reddick's problems at Texas together with his own eighth victory in 345 starts means Crafton more than doubles his lead over the BKR driver to 25 points at the top of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship standings, with Jones in third ahead of Sauter and Townley. In the owner standings, Crafton's #88 ThorSport Racing Toyota enjoys an identical margin over the #19 Brad Keselowski Ford followed five points back by a brace of Kyle Busch Motorsports trucks (Suarez' #51 and Jones' #4).
The Truck Series returns next weekend for the Drivin for Linemen 200, a stand-alone event at the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois.
See full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and the latest Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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