Matt Crafton's consistency in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has been a plus all season, but Crafton's really hoping his recent success at the fast, 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway pays dividends in Friday night's fifth annual EnjoyIllinois.com 225.
"We've been up-and-down there -- decent, but not great," said the typically low-key driver of the No. 88 Serta / Menards Toyota. "But for sure, it's time to take our game to another level this weekend."
Crafton and his crew chief, Carl "Junior" Joiner, last season scored Crafton's best finish, fourth, at the track located outside Chicago in Joliet, Ill. This season Crafton's the only driver in the Truck Series that's logged 15 top-10 finishes in the 15 races that've been run.
The time's right to upgrade their performance, because defending series champion James Buescher cut Crafton's 11-race-old lead in the championship to 37 points with seven races left this season, when Buescher won at Iowa last weekend while Crafton finished seventh.
"We've just got to put our heads down and keep digging, keep it up with our good work in the pits," Crafton said. "We've been good, but our finishes lately don't show how good we've been running.
"On the road course, we just missed it and were able to scramble back into the top 10 at the end. But at Michigan and Pocono and Iowa our trucks were a lot better than we finished -- circumstances just knocked us back. We need to execute everything we know how to do, perfectly and then if luck's on our side we'll be there when it counts."
Crafton does have the advantage of having raced once already this season at Chicagoland, and scoring a 10th-place finish in his second career NASCAR Nationwide Series race, for Richard Childress Racing, in July.
"I was pleased to see the track had aged a little more, which we drivers like to see," Crafton said. "It was interesting to see how much the groove moved around, during that race and hopefully that's what we'll see during the Truck race so we can put on a heckuva show for the fans.
"Chicagoland's definitely not boring to go around, in the driver's seat. The track's got a lot of character and it's a lot of fun to drive because you can move around -- run high and run low and run wherever you have to -- to make your car or truck find speed. That's really what I enjoy the most about a slick surface."
Despite downplaying his Chicagoland performance, Crafton did win the pole there in 2009 for the Truck Series' inaugural race. In the four Truck races held there to-date, Crafton's average starting position is 9.5 and his average finish, eighth.
The veteran Ron Hornaday has the best average finish among drivers with four Chicagoland Truck starts, 7.8, while Crafton's ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter is third on the list with a 9.3 average finish.
The biggest reason Crafton's not taking his summer experience too quickly to the bank is because of the variance in the two events' schedules.
"The biggest thing that I noticed that we're going to have to deal with is that (the Truck race) is a night race," Crafton said. "When we raced the Nationwide cars in the daytime, the groove really moved up as the track got hotter and slicker and the oil came up out of the surface. That's when you had to move around and find a surface with some grip.
"Looking ahead at the weather it's going to be a lot cooler for the Truck race, at night and we'll have to be careful to account for the potential temperature change from the start of the race to later in the race, because when it's cooler you'll tend to be on the bottom of the racetrack more, because that's the fastest way around."
Crafton will extend his series-leading string of consecutive Truck Series starts to 310 when he takes the green flag Friday evening in the opening event of a NASCAR tripleheader with the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series that Sunday opens the 10th annual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.