The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has largely been regarded as a place for young, up-and-coming drivers to refine their race craft and then move on to the next challenge.
But Matt Crafton is prospering by doing the opposite.
The California native, who began his full-time Truck Series career in 2001 and didn’t get his first series win until 2008, has become a mainstay in NASCAR’s No. 3 national division. His rivals have changed over the years, but he has remained.
Now, he’s the standard-bearer. After more than a decade, Crafton captured his first Truck Series title in 2013. And last month, a ninth-place finish in the 2014 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway enabled him to become the first back-to-back champion in series history.
His run to the 2014 title was more impressive than the one he had the year before on several levels. In his 14th season, Crafton finally had his first campaign with multiple victories (Martinsville and Texas).
Additionally, he was a more consistent front-runner as well with 13 Top-5 finishes – a significant improvement over the seven such results he had in 2013.
That proved critical in his ability to hold off young guns Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr. for the title. After taking over the points lead in September at Chicagoland with a runner-up finish, Crafton had five more Top-5s in the final seven races. This run of results effectively canceled out Blaney’s solid late-season efforts, while Wallace’s hopes effectively ended with three races to go thanks to an engine failure at Texas.
With his second Truck Series title now in his pocket, Crafton is in prime position to be a “legacy driver” for the Truck Series, much like Jack Ingram was for the NASCAR XFINITY Series in the 1980s and early 1990s. Ingram scored 31 victories and a pair of series championships in his NXS career, and for his efforts, he’s now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Crafton himself only has five Truck Series wins to his name but if he can continue to build on his body of work, he may not need to get as many wins as Ingram in order to be considered for his own trip to the Hall one day.
In addition to Crafton’s second title, the 2014 Truck Series season was also marked by the sheer dominance of Kyle Busch Motorsports, which set a single-season series record for wins with 14 and captured the owner’s title with its No. 51 Toyota Tundra.
Busch himself contributed half of those wins, while KBM full-time driver Wallace (in the No. 54 Toyota Tundra) bagged four of them – a total that included special triumphs at Eldora’s Mudsummer Classic, Martinsville, and Homestead.
KBM’s part-time racer, Erik Jones, chipped in three wins himself, including his first win on a mile-and-a-half oval at Las Vegas. In 2015, Jones will compete full-time for KBM, and he’ll also get in some NXS races with Joe Gibbs Racing, too.
Blaney, who finished runner-up to Crafton in the driver’s standings, was also solid in 2014 with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, 12 Top-5s, and 17 Top-10s for Brad Keselowski Racing. That victory in Canada came after perhaps the most thrilling Truck Series finish of the year.
On the final lap at the road course outside Toronto, Blaney went wheel-to-wheel with German Quiroga in a superb battle that looked like it would go the Mexican’s way when he took the lead in Turn 9.
But as they entered the final corner, Turn 10, Blaney crossed over to the inside and narrowly defeated Quiroga in a drag race to the checkers.
Blaney will now look ahead to a 2015 schedule that will see him continue his NXS program with Team Penske and also take on part-time Sprint Cup duty for the famous Wood Brothers outfit.
Another memorable moment came later in the year at New Hampshire, where 16-year-old Cole Custer delivered a stunning upset to become the youngest-ever winner of a NASCAR national series event.
Custer had been strong all day, but a call for four tires knocked him to seventh with less than 25 laps to go. But several restarts in the remaining laps allowed Custer to capitalize on his fresh rubber, and on the final restart with four to go, Custer pulled away from Crafton to take the lead for good.
Additionally, two other Sprint Cup regulars besides the aforementioned Kyle Busch came away with Truck Series wins in 2014. Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon hung on in green-white-checkered to nab a victory at Pocono Raceway, and at Bristol, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski earned his inaugural Truck Series win.