There has been a bit of a lean spell in recent weeks for ThorSport Racing's Matt Crafton, with his bid to claim a third success NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship seeming to have become becalmed, and for the first half of this week's race at Martinsville Speedway he looked firmly on course for a solid but not exactly spectacular top ten finish.
However, once the race passed the midway point it was the cue for Crafton to surge forward. He took to the front on lap 138, and after that he refused to be ousted despite multiple yellow flag interruptions before he was finally able to clinch the chequered flag and claim his fifth win of the year and his 10th victory in 358 Truck starts.
"We've had a very trying last two months, but to get back to Victory Lane is awesome," Crafton said, crediting his team for the win. "These guys just never give up. We weren't that great on the short run, but like I said, I never give up on these guys. They keep fine-tuning and fine-tuning."
CLICK: Full NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race results from Martinsville Speedway.
Heading to the green flag for the Kroger 200 on Saturday afternoon, pole had been taken by JR Motorsports' Cole Custer after the 17-year-old clinched his first pole of 2015 and his third in 18 Truck starts with a lap of 19.530s (96.959mph) on the half-mile 'Paperclip' putting him 0.092s ahead of Crafton's ThorSport team mate Cameron Hayley.
Custer went on to lead for a race-high 96 of the 200-lap race. He stayed in front for the first restart after an early spin in turn 4 for Timothy Peters on lap 8, and then briefly surrendered the lead after a round of pit stops on lap 37 following a spin in the same spot for Brandon Hightower (SWM-NEMCO Motorsports). A multi-car accident on lap 63 following contact between Paige Decker (Mike Harmon Racing) and Gray Gaulding (Kyle Busch Motorsports) also failed to break Custer's grip on the race. A restart on lap 83 following contact between Gaulding's KBM team mates Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez gave John Hunter Nemechek (SWM-NEMCO Motorsports) the chance to briefly take the lead, but next time around the #00 was once again out in front just before Peters' second spin for the night after contact with Dalton Sargeant (Wauters Motorsports) in turn 2.
Custer's run at the front finally came to an end on lap 106 when Nemechek got around him and started to pull away. When the field pitted under a caution for JJ Haley spinning on lap 121, Custer was penalised for speeding on pit lane and sent to the back for the restart; he would end up battling his way through to finish in fourth place but it was a disappointing finish after a dominant first half of the race.
With Custer now out of the picture, Nemechek continued to lead until the next rapid caution materialised on lap 131 for John Wes Townley hitting the wall in turn 2. The restart allowed Crafton to take to the front for the first time of the day, with Hayley the only truck able to give any sort of chase but nonetheless soon a second away from the race leader.
Five more cautions gave the field plenty of chances to try and prise the lead away from Crafton: there was Timothy Peters going for another spin on lap 156 and his team mate Ray Black Jr. spinning on lap 171, then Sargeant spinning out on lap 180; finally there was a caution on lap 187 when Gaulding spun at the next restart attempt which resulted in collateral damage to the trucks of both David Gilliland (RBR Enterprises) and Tyler Young (Young's Motorsports). The 12th and final caution of the day came with six laps remaining when newcomer Austin Cindric (Brad Keselowski Racing) and Caleb Holman (Henderson Motorsports) made contact and also caught up Spencer Gallagher (GMS Racing) in the fallout.
Through it all, Crafton kept a tight grip on the lead and when the race finally made it to the chequered flag the reigning champion had a comfortable four tenths over Nemechek, Hayley and Custer. BKR's Tyler Reddick was fifth while Timothy Peters recovered from his various spins to claim sixth place ahead of Brandon Jones (GMS Racing), Holman, Johnny Sauter (ThorSport Racing) and Erik Jones in tenth, the highest of the three KBM entries in a difficult day for the squad.
"It was just a fight all day," admitted Jones, who suffered from handling issues that were compounded by a soft brake pedal. "We missed it a little bit as an organisation. I think it showed we were off most of the day for the three trucks," he said, adding: "We'll work on it and get it better."
Victory this weekend means that Crafton moves back into second place in his bid to retain his title, and to within ten points of championship leader Erik Jones in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings. Tyler Reddick drops to third position three points behind, and the lead trio are now some way clear of Sauter, Peters and Hayley with just three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to go in November before the end of the season.
The next race will be the WinStar World Casino & Resort 350 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 6.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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