(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Tracking the Trucks: Matt Crafton Slays Dirt Racing at Eldora

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In a Nutshell: Matt Crafton snapped a 27-race winless streak with a 1.960-second victory over Stewart Friesen in Wednesday night’s (July 19) Eldora Dirt Derby.

Crafton took advantage of a late-race restart to pass a dominant Friesen for the lead and held on to the top spot for the remaining 17 circuits en route to his first win since Charlotte last season. Chase Briscoe, Grant Enfinger and John Hunter Nemechek rounded out the top five.

Who Should Have Won: Friesen emerged a surprise favorite after running well in practice on Tuesday (July 18) and backing that up with the fastest qualifying lap on Wednesday afternoon. He won his heat race, starting on the pole for the main event and led 33 of the 40 laps in the first stage before relinquishing the lead to Crafton. He won the second stage and fell just 17 laps led short of scoring his first career victory. Friesen led a race-high 93 circuits but faded from the lead behind racewinner Crafton, whose truck came to life in the closing laps.

Race Rundown

Johnny Sauter’s Eldora Struggles Continue

Eldora Speedway has never really been that kind to Johnny Sauter. He crashed out of the inaugural race at the track and has a best finish of eighth, hardly what you’d expect from the defending champion. Finishes of 29th, eighth, 13th and 21st don’t make one optimistic for a shot at Victory Lane for the driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet.

“Eldora is a little bit different situation, especially a guy for me that’s raced asphalt his whole life,” Sauter said in a NASCAR teleconference last week. “I think it’s a fun place, but for me it’s just a place where I just haven’t figured it out quite yet.”

Sauter started 14th Wednesday night and was promptly collected in a lap 20 accident that saw Sheldon Creed and Ben Rhodes spin after the two made contact. The wreck ultimately ended up involving nine trucks, though all were able to continue racing. Sauter also complained of his truck overheating at the time of that caution.

Though Sauter made an additional stop to clear mud from the grille, the overheating issues continued to plague the No. 21 team. Near the end of the first stage, the crew found a small hole in the radiator and elected to make a change, hoping to finish the race rather than posting a DNF.

Sauter praised his crew for their speed in repairing the truck, but the damage was already done. He finished 23rd, seven laps down.

Stewart Friesen Shines in Second Trip to Eldora

The 2017 season has been a rough one on Friesen and his team, Halmar Friesen Racing.

After four DNFs in seven races and a single lead-lap finish (19th at Atlanta Motor Speedway), the new team (it debuted last season at Eldora) opted to sit out for two weeks to evaluate its program and take the time to prepare for the remainder of the full-time effort announced before the season began.

Come Kentucky Speedway, it looked like the time off had worked out for the organization as it bounced back to a 12th-place finish, an impressive effort for a team that looked like it could be forced to cut the season short with the rate the equipment was being destroyed.

Fast forward to this week, and Friesen, who crashed out of his Truck Series debut at Eldora last season but ran near the front at times, came in prepared to make the most of the lone dirt race on the schedule. He posted the quickest lap in qualifying and promptly followed it up with a win in his heat race.

If that wasn’t enough, he led the first 33 laps of the race before relinquishing the top spot. At the beginning of the second stage, he held the top spot for a single lap before Nemechek led 11 circuits. Friesen resumed the lead for the final 39 laps en route to a stage two win.

A pit stop under that caution to change tire that was losing air dropped the driver of the No. 52 to seventh, though he wasted little time moving to the lead once again. He led 20 more circuits for a race-high 93 before succumbing to a hard-charging Crafton as the track changed in the closing laps.

But for Friesen, second just wasn’t enough.

“Second sucks, bottom line,” Friesen lamented. “Having this opportunity has been a dream come true. It feels good to run good, but not closing out the deal burns.”

Later, Friesen explained in his post-race media availability: “The first seven races was probably the most frustrating racing I’ve ever been a part of in my life and a big learning experience. To run good and be up in the top five is good; we just wanted to close it out. There’s a little bit of a silver lining but not much.”

Finishing second in a race where the truck was as strong as it was may burn, but once Friesen gets a moment to take a step back and look at the overall big picture of getting so much television coverage, he’ll likely realize just how important this run was, despite bringing home a runner-up finish.

Quick Hits

  • Christopher Bell entered Eldora heavily favored to win, given not only his dirt track experience but also his familiarity with the half-mile oval situated in Rossburg, Ohio. But just before the conclusion of the first stage, Bell spun his No. 4 Toyota and was T-boned by Kaz Grala, who simply had nowhere to go. The heavy right-side damage wasn’t enough to be termina,l and Bell recovered to lead 22 laps en route to a ninth-place finish, still far lower than most expected.
  • Speaking of favorites, Bobby Pierce made his third start at Eldora Wednesday night but struggled mightily. The team wasn’t quite ready with the truck until late in practice on Tuesday, and the speed simply lacked for the No. 63 Chevrolet. After suffering a last-lap spin during his heat race, Pierce was forced to the last chance qualifier and started 26th. After being involved in the first two cautions, Pierce took advantage of a pair of free passes to recover to a respectable sixth-place finish.
  • Briscoe and the No. 29 team averted what could have been Eldora disaster Wednesday night. At the end of his heat race, the right front tire wasn’t turning as Briscoe brought the No. 29 Ford off the track. His crew quickly went to work and found the spacing around the brake rotors and calipers was not calibrated correctly. NASCAR allowed the team to make the necessary repairs with no penalty. Briscoe started 12th but lost fourth gear within the first five laps. Despite being forced to run in third gear for the entire race, he recovered to a solid third-place finish.
  • After finishing third at Eldora last year but losing his full-time Truck Series ride in the offseason, Rico Abreu returned to the Truck Series to run a fifth ThorSport Racing truck. After starting 15th, he was collected in a multi-truck accident on lap 20 but was able to continue. Methodically working his way through the field, Abreu found himself in the top five late in the race, though a late-race flat tire forced him down pit road, ultimately settling for a 26th-place finish.

Truck Rookie Report

2017 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 13 Cody Coughlin
No. 18 Noah Gragson
No. 19 Austin Cindric
No. 24 Justin Haley
No. 29 Chase Briscoe
No. 33 Kaz Grala
No. 49 Wendell Chavous
No. 52 Stewart Friesen
No. 98 Grant Enfinger

No. of rookies in the race: 9

No. of rookies to finish in the top 10: 6; Friesen, finished second; Briscoe, finished third; Enfinger, finished fourth; Noah Gragson, finished seventh; Justin Haley, finished eighth; Austin Cindric, finished 10th.

Rookie of the Race: Friesen

Points Update: Despite a disappointing 23rd-place finish, Sauter remains the championship leader by a slim seven-point margin over Bell. Briscoe is third, followed by racewinner Crafton. Rookie Enfinger rounds out the top five.

Nemechek sits just two markers outside the top five in sixth, followed by Rhodes. One point behind Rhodes, Ryan Truex sits eighth. Gragson and Cindric round out the top 10.

Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Pocono Raceway next Saturday, July 29. Coverage for the Overton’s 150 begins at 1 p.m. ET on FOX; the race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiruisXM NASCAR Channel 90.

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About Beth Lunkenheimer

Beth Lunkenheimer
Content Director Beth heads up management of our 30-person staff, acting as Tom’s main assistant with technology and personnel while working as Frontstretch’s Truck Series expert. The author of Truckin’ Thursdays and the coordinator of the site’s pre and post-race coverage, she also runs a periodic charity column that spotlights when NASCAR gives back. A childhood transplant to Texas, Beth is a 15-year writing veteran who has contributed content to BRANDT and Athlon Sports, among other outlets.

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