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This weekend, the Camping World Truck Series heads to Rockingham Speedway for a Sunday afternoon showdown while the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series are halfway across the country in Texas. While Johnny Sauter has stolen the headlines with back-to-back victories at Daytona and Martinsville to begin the season, it’s teammate Matt Crafton who hopes to steal those headlines as he sets the all-time record for most consecutive series starts.
Now before you ask what the big deal is, consider the sponsorship woes that have plagued the series for years now, sidelining some of the veterans that used to be important fixtures around the circuit. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see that making it to nearly 300 consecutive starts in the series is something impressive, especially when you consider that Crafton has done it all—with the exception of the 2004 season—with the same team.
The 36-year-old began his foray into NASCAR while subbing for his injured father in the Featherlite Southwest Series for the final three races in the 1996 season. He went full-time in the series the following year and snagged the 2000 series championship, with four victories to his name. Following that championship, Crafton made his Truck Series debut behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet in the season finale at the then-California Speedway. After starting 17th in the Motorola 200, he finished solidly in ninth as one of only ten trucks that remained on the lead lap when the checkered flag flew. The following year, he went full-time in the series and hasn’t looked back since.
Fast forward to 2004 when Crafton left ThorSport to join Kevin Harvick, Inc., who had just signed its first primary sponsorship for the No. 6 Chevrolet. In 25 races that season, six top 5s and 17 top-10 results and finish fifth the series standings. But despite those numbers, he was released from KHI at the end of the season and found himself back with ThorSport where he remains today.
It wasn’t until 2008 when Crafton finally visited victory lane in his 178th career start. To date, it remains as the most starts a driver has made before capturing their first career win. But 2009 was the year that arguably stands as his best season yet followed closely by 2010. In the two years combined, Crafton scored three poles, 21 top 5s and 41 top 10s in 50 races, finishing second and fourth in the points standings.
Fast forward to today, and while teammate Johnny Sauter has visited victory lane in both races this season, Crafton hasn’t been all that far behind, posting results of eighth and second at Daytona and Martinsville, respectively. Plus, he sits a solid third in points right now with an average finish of sixth at two of the toughest tracks on the circuit. But as for the record he’ll become the sole owner of this weekend?
“I’ve thought about it a couple times,” Crafton said during Speedweeks at Daytona in February. “But believe me, it’s something that’s very cool, to be able to say that I’m there, among that group of record holders in the Camping World Truck Series.”
But do you want to hear something even more interesting about the man Crafton will surpass this weekend? It’s Terry Cook, the driver Crafton replaced at ThorSport Racing almost 13 years ago. Cook’s string of consecutive series starts ended at 296 with a start-and-park effort for Corrie Stott Racing, just one week after parting ways with HT Motorsports. He ended up missing the season finale and setting Crafton up to have the opportunity become the sole holder of the record.
“The biggest thing I have to say, obviously, is thank you to (owners) Duke and Rhonda Thorson for always believing in me,” Crafton said. “and for giving me the opportunity to be there for all those races, and to have the equipment and the team behind me to have a shot to own this record outright.”
After a lackluster 2012, it’s a little early to say whether the team is in the middle of an outright turn-around, but all indications point to a bit of ThorSport magic this season. And Crafton would love to take his turn at the front of the field, sharing the spotlight with his teammate, something that’s definitely attainable at Rockingham given the 40 laps he led en route to a third-place finish last April.
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