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.
“Daytona is about one thing and one thing only: It’s just the watch,” said Bryan Sellers, the 2018 GTD Series champion who still is seeking his first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory after 13 starts. “You grow up in sports car racing knowing that is the one trophy you have to win before you walk away. You want to wear that watch to Daytona the next year, so that everyone knows you won it, or you want to wear it to the year-end banquet so people know you have won one.
“That is a race that when you win it, your name is forever etched in history. There is something special about it. Everybody wants the watch. That’s all that matters.”
Since 1992, every driver on a class-winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and the race’s grand marshal) has received the watch, whose retail price starts at more than $10,000. Last year, there were 16 watches awarded to the winners at Daytona International Speedway.
Every winner has a story of what the watch means, and every driver still trying to win their first has a story of what they’d do with it.
Here’s a sampling of what the watch means to those racing in the 58th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:
A.J. Allmendinger (2012 Daytona Prototype overall winner): “Yeah, I always bring it with me to the Rolex as a good luck charm to show me like, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten one before, we can still go do this again.’ For the most part, I don’t wear it, I keep it in a drawer that I know where it is at all times. If I’m feeling a little down on myself about my driving at times, I may have put it back on just to show like ‘Hey, you can get it one when it’s time,’ but I don’t wear it a lot, I wear it on special occasions and always bring it out just to show that you know it’s inspiration. I’d like another one for my other arm. Technically, I have to get another one for my dad because I promised him the first one and once I won it I was like, ‘No, sorry Dad, this one’s mine,’ but it’s there. It’ll always be in a drawer for sure.”
Townsend Bell (2014 GTD): “We lost the race in 2014 on a penalty, and the penalty was reversed two hours after the race. So we won the race and I won a watch. And then four years later, my watch was stolen when my house was burglarized. So just for one watch and one win, I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions just to this point, and I really look at it like I’m level set back to nothing, and I’ve got to go earn and win one again and having lost one through theft it makes me just as hungry as ever to go make it happen. … When I first won the watch, I brought it home to California, and I remember showing it to my oldest son Jackson at the time, and it’s one of the few things I’ve done in racing where he’s looked at something or held something, and I can tell he was proud and thought it was pretty cool. As a dad, that’s a great feeling.”
Andy Lally (2001Rolex SRPII, 2009-2011-2012 Rolex GT, 2016 GTD): “I actually have eight because I got three championships and back then they used to give you one for the championship. The first one is here and the other seven are gifted to people that have helped me out through the years. I gave my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my little sister, Mike Johnson, who was the car owner and the guy that put me in my first Daytona that helped me win the first one. My old soccer coach and the first guy to sponsor me in a car. He pulled me out of go karts and put me in my first race car. Those people have my other seven watches. I want to win more to give back. I love that moment because I give it to people who appreciate what this race is about and appreciate the Rolex brand and appreciate what that means, what that signifies, what that Rolex Daytona is and it’s special to me and I know it’s special to them.”
Joao Barbosa (2010 Daytona Prototype overall, 2014 Prototype overall, 2018 Prototype overall): “I’m planning to donate a couple of them when my kids grow up and probably when they have their own kids so it goes by generations. I have two kids so someday they will have their own kids, and it might be a good gift to give them when they get to that point.”
Renger van der Zande (2019 DPI overall): “I have a son, he’s 1 year and 2 months. So, if he behaves for 18 years and he’s responsible, he might get a Rolex from me. So I’ll keep it safe for then.”
Ricky Taylor (2017 Prototype overall): “So when I won the Rolex in 2017, I never took it out of the box. I would leave it in the box and I would eat breakfast with it every day, I’d look at it, and it didn’t seem real. So I’d look at it and it would be there, we’d eat breakfast together, and then I’d put it away. That went on for about two, three weeks, and then my dad told me that we had a sponsor dinner, and everyone was wearing their watches, so I had to wear it. So, besides that one time that I wore it to the sponsor dinner, it’s never come out of the box. It hides in my office, and I want it just to stay exactly how it was the day that we won.”
Oliver Gavin (2016 GTLM): “My Rolex is now at home in a safe. I’ve gotten it out of the box once and showed my family. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to put this away for safekeeping. It’s now still there, in the safe. I’ve got relics from the Sebring 12 Hours in 2013. I want one more, then I’ve got one for all my children. That’s my goal.”
Ryan Briscoe (2015 GTLM, 2018 GTLM): “The first one was absolutely mine and I don’t wear a watch much, I’ve got a beautiful watch box at home. My dad gave me this rotating watch box so it keeps it going and so forth. My second one, I wanted to give to my wife. I had it sized for her. It’s a gold one with a white face and really looks good. So on special occasions, we will put our Daytonas on and go out.”
Patrick Pilet (2014 GTLM): “My wife she told me if I win a second one, she wants to get it so now I have a lot of pressure. I’m always proud to wear the watch and to show what is on the back of the watch with the Rolex winner is something really unique.”
Nick Tandy (2014 GTLM): “The watch is a trophy you can’t buy. You have to win it. It’s obviously symbolic of the race. A bit like the trophies at Le Mans. You can only get these particular trophies at Le Mans. So, if in years to come in time you can look back and show your grandchildren this particular trophy that happens to be a Rolex, and you can say you had to win this, no one can go out there and buy these sort of things- it’s something you have to work for.”
Kamui Kobayashi (2019 DPI overall): “I would not mind having a second one (laughs). This is why you always want to win these big races. The challenge of this big race, everyone wants this big watch. The watch is a special present. Everyone says it looks cool, but when you turn it around and it says Daytona winner, that is something even more special. To look at that, it is just crazy.”
Colin Braun (2014 Prototype challenge winner): “I have two of them. They’re both in my safe at home. I won them, and I just felt like, ‘Man, these are so special to me.’ I want to be able to take them out, look at them and put them back in my safe. I feel like if I wore them, I’d worry about scratching them, losing them. They’re just so special. When I won a second one, I would wear that watch because it would kind of be an everyday watch. I sort of fell back on that and said, ‘Man, this is special, too. I’m putting this in the safe.’ I don’t want anything to happen to it so if we can win a third here I’ll say that I’ll wear it, and hopefully, I really do.”
Simon Pagenaud (2019 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in five Rolex 24 starts): “Racing is also about the trophies and the jewelry that you get. I think it’s ends up being what you’ve done in your career and when you look at your rings and your watches and your trophies that you’ve won throughout the years, you remember racing moments, passing, actions at the race track, drama and you’ve got all these memories going through your mind. To me, it’s everything. It’s what my life is — its racing– so obviously if I could get the watch that would be a very special gift.”
Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in two Rolex 24 starts): “I have (an Indy 500 ring), a watch would be great. I don’t know if there’s a race that gives out a necklace if you win but if there is, that would probably be the next on my list.”
Helio Castroneves (three-time Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in four Rolex 24 starts): “I think the jewelry combination would be perfect. Ring (from the Indy 500) and watch together. It would just complete one of the goals that I want. You’re talking about Daytona 24 Hours, and the Rolex would be an incredible asset to have right here (points at wrist).”