Justin Lofton, a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) at Charlotte, returned to a track where his name is still fresh on the minds of fans and competitors after his win in 2012, for his first event with NTS Motorsports and the No.9 GunBroker.com Chevrolet Silverado team. After a full day on track and a race filled with chances for disaster, Lofton and Crew Chief Ryan McKinney found the right combination to get the most out of their truck and fought hard for a finish inside the top 10. The road to a solid finish was not without it's speed bumps, starting with a familiar scene to the Camping World Truck Series on Thursday, as heavy rain moved through the Charlotte area.
As teams and drivers piled into one of racing's most prestigious venues, to kick of a 10-Day NASCAR celebration of speed and freedom, everyone had one question on their mind. Would the weather permit NASCAR to open the track for the scheduled total of four hours practice time? First time NCWTS Crew Chief, but seasoned NASCAR Veteran, Ryan McKinney knew practice was an important first step to a successful weekend. As crews prepared their trucks for the track to open, the rain settled over the skies of Concord, NC and all activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway were canceled for the day.
Race day began with picturesque blue skies and no threat of precipitation in the forecast. Final practice was extended to two hours to give teams sufficient time to test their setups. As Justin Lofton prepared to climb into the truck and get on track for the first time with NTS Motorsports, he was he and his team were poised for a great finish. "It just felt right, strapping in and pulling my belts tight, I was confident we could go out and show everyone that this is a strong team", said Lofton in an interview following practice. After 32 total laps on track and searching for a little extra rear grip through the corners, the NTS Motorsports No.9 team sat 15th on the chart with a fast time of 30.16.
Lining up for qualifying, an exciting new format that now focuses on strategy as much as speed, Ryan McKinney was confident in his setup but knew that finding the right partners to run with was just as important for the new "Knockout" process. The first segment, 25 minutes for teams to lay down their best possible lap, would cut the field to the 24 fastest competitors. On his first run, Lofton posted a time placing him above the cutoff and was content to let time expire in order to focus on cooling the engine and being fast in the next 10 minute round. As the clock started on the 2nd round, that would cut the field to the top 12, Lofton raced on track behind his NTS Motorsport teammate, Austin Dillon, and made it back to the flag stand fast enough to be just above the knockout line in 12th. After a few additional teams made their way on track, Lofton was just below the bubble in 14th and went back out to try and advance to the third and final installment. After finding a truck to draft behind, and setting what was proving to be a blistering pace coming down the backstretch, the lead truck stalled and Lofton had to slow to avoid a collision. As time expired, Lofton was unable to get in an additional lap at full speed, and would claim a starting position of 14th leading into the start of the race.
Just as the sun was setting behind the North Carolina mountains, Lofton heard the words he had been waiting to hear since his last NCWTS start in 2013; "Gentlemen, start your engines!" The GunBroker.com Chevrolet Silverado roared to life and the N.C. Education Lottery 200 was underway. Starting in 14th, Lofton and McKinney began devising their plan to pick their way to the front by the end of 134 laps. By lap 20 when the first caution was displayed, Lofton had settled into 15th and was fighting a race truck that was sliding the nose. Lofton asked his crew chief for help getting the truck to turn a little better and McKinney responded with a strong chassis adjustment during the pit stop. With ten laps under green before the next yellow flag was waived, Lofton knew they were headed in the right direction with the setup changes, as he had worked his way into 11th and was moving forward.
On lap 74, it looked as though all of the hard work might be taken away, as Lofton saw nothing but smoke coming off of turn four. Akin to Days of Thunder, the seasoned racer accelerated instead of slowing and drove through the smoke and out of harm's way. In total, the event would see nine cautions, which gave Crew chief, Ryan McKinney and his team ample time to find a set-up that felt good to Lofton. On the final stop of lighting fast service by the GunBroker.com pit crew, McKinney sacrificed track position to give his driver one more good adjustment and a fighting chance at a solid finish. It was a decision that proved fruitful by the time the checkered flag was displayed. Avoiding a wild crash at the finish, Lofton came to the Checkered and Caution flag, after making his way into 10th during the final laps of the event. It was a strong showing and successful debut for Justin Lofton, with NTS Motorsports, and a lot to build on going into his next event at Texas Motor Speedway in June.
Justin Lofton's Post-Race Thoughts:
"Overall it was a hard fought and successful night for NTS Motorsports and my GunBroker.com crew. The guys never gave up and never quit digging. We were a little off on the setup to start the race, but we learned a lot as the race went on and Ryan made adjustments that really helped. We have a lot to build on going into our next mile and a half event at Texas Motor Speedway."
Crew Chief Ryan McKinney's Post-Race Thoughts:
"I really have to thank Bob Newberry and Dwayne Gaulding for this opportunity to sit on the pit box for a team like NTS Motorsports. The Camping World Truck Series always puts on a great show with exciting racing and I am proud to be a part of it again. I want to thank Justin too, it was great to with a driver with his talent and experience and I look forward to working with him again in the near future. All the guys at NTS Motorsports have been working very hard to build us first class trucks and I really appreciate all their hard work and dedication. With these fast Chevy Silverados they keep building, a win is just around the corner."