The 2016 season for ThorSport Racing was one that was taxing beyond the results on the racetrack. Despite falling short of a championship, one that would have been their third in the past four seasons (two with Matt Crafton), the organization experienced a setback that nobody had in store. A fire in June that destroyed their race shop in Sandusky, Oh. threw ThorSport the biggest curveball imaginable. Yet, like any championship team, they persevered through the harsh times and came out stronger.
The four-headed monster of veteran Matt Crafton along with rookie’s Cameron Hayley, Rico Abreu and Ben Rhodes came into the 2016 season looking to dominate. On paper, ThorSport had it all—and then some. Crafton had the championship pedigree, Abreu had the dirt-racing credentials that should have translated into NASCAR success, Hayley was the clean-cut Canadian who had showed promise in the Pinty’s Series/K&N Pro Series West and Rhodes was the K&N Pro Series East champion, looking to refine his skills at one of the top levels of motorsport in all of North America.
Crafton, 40, finished 2016 with 16 top tens and eight top fives in the 23-race NCWTS season. He won two races (Dover and Charlotte, back-to-back), one pole and led 446 laps en route to finishing second to GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter, who won his first ever NASCAR championship. Although second wasn’t enough for the No. 88, it was a rock-solid season and one to be proud of for the whole ThorSport bunch.
Abreu had a bit of a disappointing season in his No. 98 Toyota Tundra. He only mustered five top tens and two top fives to go along with one lap led. His average finish of 15.9 wasn’t good enough to qualify the rookie for the NCWTS Chase, as he struggled all season long. One bright spot, though, came at—you guessed it—Eldora Speedway, the only dirt track on the NASCAR schedule. Abreu earned a third-place finish that night. But unfortunately for him, only one of 23 races are on dirt, and Abreu’s career on asphalt is still looking to get on the fast track.
Hayley’s rookie campaign was a pleasant surprise for the No. 13 team, ThorSport as well as Hayley himself. He garnered 11 top tens and six top fives throughout the season and led 23 laps. He also would have qualified for the Chase if Kyle Busch didn’t spoil the show at Chicago, the final race of the regular season, and keep Hayley and Cole Custer out of victory lane. The 19-year old from Alberta made his presence known in NASCAR in ’16.
And finally, we have Rhodes, who accumulated five top tens and two top fives in 2016 in the No. 41 Tundra. He did earn one pole and led 55 laps on his way to a 14th place finish in the points standings. It might not have been the season Rhodes and company were looking for, but for a 19-year old experience was the No. 1 priority, and that’s exactly what he got.
ThorSport isn’t getting a complete makeover for 2017, but some might call it a high-grade facelift. Due to a lack sponsorship, both Hayley and Abreu will not be returning to the team this upcoming season.
“I wish things could have worked out,” Abreu told Motorsport.com in January while participating at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa. “The way sponsorship goes, sometimes things change. That’s just the way things go […] I’m not going to give up on (NASCAR). I’m just going to take a step back,” he said.
Hayley echoed Abreu’s sentiments. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity I had to be in competitive equipment and show what I am capable of,” Hayley told catchfence.com. “Unfortunately, the sponsorship didn’t materialize as we had hoped for this season, so I won’t be back.” He added that he is hoping to be racing in NASCAR in some capacity in 2017.
Crafton and Rhodes will remain with ThorSport, but replacing the two departing drivers will be Grant Enfinger and Cody Coughlin. Rhodes will switch numbers from No. 41 to No. 27, Enfinger will drive the No. 98 truck and Coughlin will drive the No. 13 truck in 2017.
For Rhodes, Eddie Troconis, who was the crew chief for Hayley last season, will sit atop the pit box and call the shots. The 20-year old feels confident with the new season right around the corner. “With the NASCAR changes to the race and point structure, the No. 27 team will be up front contending for segment wins and race victories to get us into the playoffs and contend for the championship,” he said in a press release. Alpha Energy Solutions will be the primary sponsor for at least two races, and additional sponsorship for the team will be announced at a later date.
As for Enfinger, he will take over Abreu’s No. 98 in his rookie season in the truck series. "This is a dream come true,” he said in a press release. “I'm blessed to be able to share this season with some great people.” Last season, he earned his first and only career win in his final start of the year at Talladega, where he led 45 of 94 laps for GMS Racing. His averagr finish in the series is 14.2 in 14 career races. The 32-year old Alabama native will have Jeff Hensley as his crew chief, who was paired with Spencer Gallagher (GMS) last season, but worked at ThorSport back in 2014 with Hayley and Sauter. Champion Power Equipment, Jive Communications, Ride TV and Curb Records will sponsor Enfinger and the No. 98 all season long as well.
The 21-year old Coughlin, who has a developmental driver deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports, will drive the No. 13 truck with JEGS and Ride TV as primary sponsors. His crew chief will be Michael Shelton, who won the title in 2012 with James Buescher. “Considering the team and I are both based in Ohio, it makes for a great fit,” he said in a team release. “I'm proud to be part of this championship-caliber organization." In 12 career NCWTS starts, his average finish is 21.5 and he has zero top tens or top fives.
As for the mainstay of the organization, Crafton, not much will be changing for him and the No. 88 group. Carl Joiner Jr. will still call the shots for the two-time champion from Tulare, Calif. and they’ll still be a threat to win at any and every track on the truck schedule.
ThorSport Racing experienced a multitude of changes during the offseason. But with a repaired race shop, two new drivers, four championship-capable teams and a winning attitude and determination flowing throughout the shop, nobody should be dazed when they have multiple cars in the playoffs and maybe they’re hoisting another trophy in Miami—just maybe.