Matt Crafton is on the verge of becoming the first repeat champion in the NASCAR Truck Series.
If he does, it will not be through a similar path as last season.
Crafton holds a 25-point lead over Ryan Blaney entering Friday night’s Ford 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and can win his second title by finishing 21st or higher regardless of the performance of any other driver.
A year ago, Crafton and his No. 88 Toyota team won early in the season at Kansas, built a large points lead, then raced conservatively the rest of the season to win the championship.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the season, that we’re going to lead more laps, we’re going win more races and do whatever it takes to do it,” Crafton said.
The result has been striking: Crafton has led 298 laps in 21 races (up from 87); he won two races (up from one) and has 13 top-five finishes (up from seven).
“I said, ‘at Homestead, let’s see where we end up’ and that’s what we’ve done every race this year. If it happens, it happens.”
Said Crafton’s crew chief, Junior Joiner, of last year’s approach: “We didn’t want to be the guy to lose a 50-point lead.”
A 25-point cushion in the series finale is stout and it would take a near-perfect performance by Blaney, coupled with Crafton experiencing some trouble, for him not to repeat.
Blaney and his No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing team are not throwing in the towel, however.
“We just got to do the best we can, try to win the race,” Blaney said. “We’ve got to focus on us.
“I know Chad (Kendrick, crew chief) and everyone at BKR has done a great job preparing this truck to put us in the position to hopefully win the race. That’s the best we can do.”
The owner’s championship in the series is a much closer battle, with Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 Toyota holding an 18-point lead over Crafton’s No. 88 team. The No. 51 team can clinch if Kyle Busch, who is driving the truck this weekend, finishes 14th or better.
There is much less at stake in Saturday’s Ford 300 Nationwide Series finale.
The race is the last for series sponsor Nationwide, which is moving to the Cup series next season to sponsor driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Xfinity will take over sponsorship of the series in 2015.
Last weekend at Phoenix, rookie Chase Elliott clinched the driver’s championship, is a first for JR Motorsports. Elliott is the first rookie candidate to win a championship in one of NASCAR’s national series.
“Once I met Greg (Ives, crew chief) – and not just him, but really the whole group that he had assembled – those guys are proven. They’ve won races,” Elliott said. “I know when I show up at the race track we have one of the best cars here, and I really feel like it’s kind of up to me.
“I really felt that way after the first couple weeks, and I felt like it was up to me to make sure I held up my end for them.”
Elliott, who didn’t have a full-time ride lined up this time a year ago, held up his end and more. He enters Homestead with three wins, two poles and 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 32 races.
Still to be decided Saturday is the car owner’s title.
Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford holds a 29-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 Toyota team. The No. 22, driven by Keselowski this week, can clinch the title by finishing 29th or better in the race.