Reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton strengthened his hold on this year's title with the fourth win of the year for ThorSport Racing in a rare Thursday evening outing for the series at Kentucky Speedway.
CLICK: Full race results from Kentucky Speedway.
Crafton was handed his ninth career victory in 348 outings over long-time leader Erik Jones when the race ended five laps early under caution following a big crash for Red Horse Racing's Ben Kennedy, who had been launched into the catchfence after an initial contact with RBR Enterprises' David Gilliland in a worrying echo of Austin Dillon's dramatic accident at the end last Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Daytona International Speedway.
“I thought I was clear," Kennedy said afterwards. "I heard 'Clear' on the radio ... I wanted to get a good arc into the corner, so I headed up toward the wall and got hit in the right rear and then, I guess, the rest is history.
"I guess Gilliland had a run on the outside and pretty much hit me in the right rear, and I went up," he mused. "I was on top of the wall. I remember being on top of the wall for quite some time.
"I didn't see much — just a bunch of dust and debris flying, then came down. The ride from the wall to the ground was pretty hard, but I'm okay," he said after being cleared and released from the in-field care centre.
"Thank God for everything that NASCAR has done to keep this sport safe, because for me to get out of my car on my own power after a hit like that is pretty incredible," added Kennedy, who is the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
"That's crazy," said Austin Dillon, who was himself quickly at the medical centre to check on Kennedy. "Two in one week." While such airborne incidents are a common hazard at high-speed tracks like Daytona and Talladega, it's an unusual sight at a regular 1.5-mile intermediate oval like Kentucky.
"It's a perfect storm, really," said Crafton of the unfortunate coincidence in timing of the two accidents. "We're going fast. Stuff does happen. It was really good to see Ben got out and walked out under his own power."
The impact left the catchfence requiring extensive repairs, although thankfully no spectators had been in the vicinity so no one had been injured by flying debris on this occasion. As well as tearing the mesh fence itself, two support poles also needed to be replaced which was a process requiring at least 90 minutes, so NASCAR decided to call the race early with Crafton credited as the winner after the #88 had just been pushed to the front by Brad Keselowski Racing's Ryan Blaney just before Kennedy's wreck.
With the day's practice and qualifying sessions for the UNOH 225 having been rained out, the starting grid for the evening event was set by the current championship owner points meaning that Crafton had also started the race on pole position ahead of Blaney's BKR team mate Tyler Reddick, with an all-Kyle Busch Motorsport second row consisting of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez.
Reddick immediately took the lead from Crafton but it was Suarez who soon took control up to the competition caution on lap 22 that had been scheduled to allow teams to pit and check tyre wear and truck set-ups given that they had not been able to take to the track at all so far before now.
Reddick won the race off pit road and was back out in front again when Spencer Gallagher spun in turn 2 on lap 28. However it was Erik Jones who soon powered his way through, leading the first of what would be three times for a race-high total of 55 laps. A spin for Brandon Brown on lap 44 allowed the leaders to pit under caution and it was Ryan Blaney who made best use of the situation to take the lead for the restart. However it was Crafton in the ascendency during this stint, and he was soon duelling with Blaney for the lead which the pole sitter finally took for the first time of the night on lap 59.
Crafton had just made a planned pit stop on lap 100 - and been slightly held up in entering his pit stall by another truck running on his inside - when a caution was declared for a loose tyre on pit road that had got away from Blaney's pit crew. That was all to the benefit of Jones who duly led the field back to green, and he was still just about in charge albeit battling ferociously to fend off Crafton when Caleb Holman spun on lap 126. Blaney and Reddick stayed out to assume the lead ahead of Jones who beat Crafton off pit road; Jones had just muscled his way back to the front when the cautions were immediately back out again for the sixth time, on this occasion for Christopher Bell spinning in turn 4.
When the race resumed once more, Jones, Crafton and Blaney were battling for the lead with Suarez close behind in fourth but once again it was only a brief tussle before another caution was declared, this time for Spencer Gallagher making contact with the wall in turn 1 while battling for position with Athenian Motorsports' John Wes Townley. The wreck left fluid on the track from the GMS Racing #23 that required a brief red flag to get cleaned up before the action could resume with seven laps remaining of the 150-lap originally scheduled race distance.
It turned out to be just one lap instead. Just after Crafton was boosted past Jones by a push from Blaney, Kennedy moved up the track in front of Gilliland before he was fully ahead of the #11 and the contact turned Kennedy sideways, where he was collected by Townley with enough force to send him flying over the top of the wall and into the catchfence at turn 1 to bring out first the yellows and finally the red flags to signal the end of the race.
"I've got to thank Ryan Blaney, he was all about that restart,” Crafton said as he celebrated his latest win - his first at Kentucky, and another step closer to retaining his title. "That push from Blaney there though on the last restart was what we needed to get ahead and we were able to keep it there until the end.
"This Toyota Tundra was really, really good," Crafton continued, adding that getting blocked on pit road on lap 100 had been the only reason he'd been bumped out of the lead by Jones and put on the back foot for the final third of the race in the first place. "I know we had the best truck here when we got track position. When we got track position earlier, we'd drive away from everybody."
In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points standings, Crafton extends his existing lead over Reddick and is now 20 points ahead, with Jones nine points further adrift in third ahead of Crafton's team mate Johnny Sauter with John Wes Townley and Red Horse Racing's Timothy Peters rounding out the top six. The drivers will be back in action for another mid-week race in just under two weeks, the one-off Mudsummer Classic dirt track race at Eldora Speedway on July 22.
All three of NASCAR's national-level series are in action this weekend in successive nights at Kentucky. As well as Thursday's Truck race, the Xfinity Series is due to take the spotlight on Friday night with the Kentucky 300, and the Sprint Cup drivers will get the green flag for the Quaker State 400 at 7.45pm local time on Saturday evening. Track officials confirmed that there would be no problem in repairing the damaged catchfence overnight and said there would be no disruption to Friday morning's schedule as a result of Kennedy's accident.
"The fence performed exactly the way it's designed to perform," Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger said. "We've got experts on standby who are over there repairing it as we speak. It should be good as new in a matter of hours."
Full race results from Kentucky, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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