NASCAR: Matt Crafton’s long road to Victory Lane

Matt Crafton will never forget his first NASCAR Truck Series victory.

He had already spent more than seven seasons racing for owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson but had been unable to secure a victory, although he had finished as high as fifth in the series standings.

He finished second in the 2008 spring race at Martinsville, Va., and two races later he found himself battling first Todd Bodine and then Chad McCumbee for the lead as the laps wound down at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

This time, Crafton held on to secure his first NASCAR win and just the second for ThorSport Racing.

“It was just a huge weight off my shoulders because it took so long to get it and we were close so many times,” Crafton said. “It felt like we had a gorilla on our back, not a monkey, since it took so long.”

Nearly six years later, Crafton returns to Charlotte still with the same team but with loftier goals.

He won his first Truck series championship in 2013 – and first for ThorSport – and enters Friday night’s N.C. Education Lottery 250 at CMS (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) as the series points leader once again.

In the year’s first three races, he’s finished 13th, first and second and he feels his No. 88 Toyota team is just as good or better than its championship-winning performance of a year ago.

If he maintains, 2014 would become the 10th season in the past 11 in which he has finished in the Top 10 of the series standings. Except for 2005 when he drove for Kevin Harvick Inc., all of his series success has been with ThorSport.

“It’s so cool what Duke and Rhonda Thorson told me back in 2000 when I first met them. They said we’re going run for the championship each and every year and we’re going to get better; we’re not just going to come in here for three years and then you forget about them,” Crafton said.

“They slowly made the organization better and better and that’s what’s so cool – to see what they have done with the team, starting with not much to where we are today.”

It’s not just Crafton who has enjoyed the success.

With Crafton moving into the points lead, he or teammate Johnny Sauter has led the points after 24 of the last 25 Truck races – a rare accomplishment for any organization at any level.

In what was a career-best season in 2013, there was only one area where he felt he and his team missed out – earning more wins.

“Everybody kept giving us a bad time at the end of last year – ‘You guys are just going to top-10 us to death.’ We were just trying to win the championship,” said Crafton, whose only win last season came at Kansas.

“Then we went into this season with guns loaded and just kind of felt good to prove a point and know that we can win races when we need to. We feel like we’re going to be strong.”

So far this year, the top two most consistent drivers have been Crafton and Kyle Busch. Busch has won the only two races in which he’s entered and is the series’ all-time wins leader. Crafton is the only other winner and finished second to Busch at Martinsville.

“If you find yourself running with Kyle a lot in these races you know you’re doing something right,” Crafton said. “Far more times than not, Kyle is up front. That’s exactly where we want to be.”