Crafton's title defense hits another pothole at Gateway
Nothing about Saturdaynight's Drivin' For Linemen 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park would lead Matt Crafton to think he can't defend his 2013 drivers' championship with his No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Toyota Tundra -- not even his 26th-place finish.
For the second time in the last three Truck Series races Crafton made heavy contact with a wall -- also for the second time while he was running first or second -- and the result was, at least momentarily, devastating.
"All I can say is I must've run over something because there was no warning, just 'boom' and it was done," Crafton said of the chain of events that occurred when the 160-lap race's fifth caution flew at lap 124. "The truck wasn't the best it had been, but it was plenty good enough (to win) so this really hurts."
The devastation came from the fact that Crafton, who came into the race with an 11-point advantage in the Truck Series' championship standings over ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter, missed a golden opportunity to pad that advantage but also to potentially drastically cut the gap to Kyle Busch Motorsports' No. 51 team in the owners' standings.
As it was, the caution flew when Crafton, who had spent the previous dozen-or-so laps in a close-quarters tussle with teenage phenom John Hunter Nemechek, smashed into the Turn 4 wall when his right-front tire deflated.
Crafton had closed the gap to Nemechek, who led 44 laps in that stretch, and then led his 11th lap of the race -- his first laps led at Gateway in his 11th career start there -- on lap 122. But three-quarters of a lap later Crafton hit the wall, Erik Jones passed the Menards Tundra for the lead and Crafton then staggered around to retire in the garage.
Crafton came to Gateway for the first Truck race since 2010 at the unique, 1.25-mile oval outside St. Louis having accrued seven top-10 finishes in his 10 career starts. Gateway marked Crafton's record-extending 323rd consecutive career Truck Series start.
As a result of the mishap and his finish, Crafton left Gateway in second place, 10 points behind Sauter, who took the point lead for the second time this season after finishing fourth behind winner Darrell Wallace Jr.
Sauter's No. 98 team is now 11 points behind the No. 51 while Crafton's 88 team is 21 points behind, in third.
"There's a lot of racing left to go and obviously, the comfort in something as frustrating as this is, we had another great Menards Tundra," Crafton said. "All we can do is regroup and get back after them at Kentucky."
Crafton, who like Sauter was thrilled to get back to Gateway and proved it by planting himself near the top of all three practice session's time sheets, got caught out by a loose Tundra in qualifying and lined-up 11th on the grid as a result.
But Crafton raced into the top 10 by lap 20 and, after a well-timed first pit stop that occurred as a caution flag flew, raced in either first or second position for a stretch of more than 50 laps between laps 70 and his untimely demise.
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