Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 14 – Matt Crafton doubles up in the Trucks

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Double vision: Matt Crafton became the first back-to-back champ in Truck Series history in 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

For No. 14, we focus on a very significant accomplishment in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series…

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has evolved quite a bit from its inception in 1995. But through its two decades of existence, it had never seen one of its champions manage to hang on to the crown the next season.

In 2014, it finally happened.

After another tremendously consistent year behind the wheel of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota Tundra, Matt Crafton became the first-ever back-to-back Truck Series champ with a ninth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That distinction doesn’t him make the king of the tailgaters just yet; Ron Hornaday Jr. still rules with four Truck Series championships and Jack Sprague’s also ahead of Crafton with three of his own.

But with how Crafton has been going in recent times, his chances of getting level with Sprague are solid – and his chances of catching Hornaday aren’t bad, either.

With just five Truck Series race wins over a 14-year career, Crafton is not the flashiest of champions. But like Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth in the top-level Sprint Cup Series, he has the knack for rattling off one strong finish after another while rivals slide up and down.

It’s a workmanlike approach and it paid off again this past year. Two wins at Martinsville and Texas plus a big jump in Top-5 runs (from seven in 2013 to 13 in 2014) kept Crafton one step ahead of the major threats to his throne – Ryan Blaney, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., and Johnny Sauter.

As for what 2015 may hold for him, Crafton is looking good to at least be a contender for title No. 3.

His No. 88 camp is rock-solid and some of his competition is going away: Blaney’s moving on to a mixed schedule of Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races, and Bubba, if rumors are to be believed, could be heading for the XFINITY Series too.

Kyle Busch Motorsports’ young gun, Erik Jones, will be making his first attempt at the Truck Series championship in 2015. Considering how good KBM’s equipment is, he could be the one that gives the stiffest challenge to Crafton.

But after what Crafton’s been able to accomplish, you know he’ll be tough to take down.

Eli Tomac’s near-perfect season ended perfectly

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From the start, Eli Tomac wanted to go into the season-ending race at Ironman Raceway with the 2020 red plate already in his possession. That final race has been know to devolve into muddy conditions and it is best not to leave things to chance.

For a rider with an almost perfect record of overall podium finishes, one would not have thought there would be much drama at the end of Round 11 at Budds Creek, but it took until the last lap of the final moto for Tomac to achieve his goal.

One reason was that Tomac’s near-perfect season was not so perfect. From the very beginning at Hangtown, Tomac struggled with poor starts to his events. Getting a bad jump out of the gate and finishing fourth in Moto 1 that weekend was not the auspicious beginning he wanted in search of his third consecutive 450 outdoor championship.

The hallmark of Tomac’s season has been overcoming bad starts. He rode through the field at Hangtown and nearly stood on the podium. Then he won Moto 2 and finished second overall. It was his first of nine consecutive overall podiums. Tomac came back the following week for a perfect sweep at Pala.

In Round 3, Tomac once again got off to a bad start. He finished fifth in Moto 1 at Thunder Valley – and then won Moto 2 in a duplication of his opening round.

In Round 5, Tomac had his worst performance until that time. He finished seventh in Moto 1. Nearly halfway through the season, a pattern was firmly established with his Moto 2 win.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

One should recall that the hallmark of Tomac’s season was strong finishes. Four the next four weeks Tomac failed to podium only one time in a moto. On that occasion, he would stumble in Moto 2 at Spring Creek in Round 8 before scoring his second perfect race at Washougal.

And that is where it got interesting. Tomac left Washougal with a 50-point advantage over Marvin Musquin. It was just the scenario Tomac had seesawed his way through the season to achieve. But it was too good to be true.

In most of his previous bad performances, there was an extenuating circumstance for Tomac’s bad start: a fall or an off course excursion. This time, he simply rode an uninspired race and finished seventh again to match his worst single moto performance. He could not fully rebound in Moto 2 and finished third.

For the first time in 2019, Tomac failed to stand on the overall podium in fourth. Worse still, he lost 10 points to Musquin and no longer had his one-race cushion.

But this is a season of recovery for Tomac. At Budds Creek last week it was reported that Tomac’s lackluster performance in Washington was due to his overdoing his chores on his Colorado ranch. Rested and restored, Tomac scored his third perfect race with Moto 1 & 2 wins. And this time, he looked sharper than he had in any previous race.

Tomac did all the could do by winning both motos, but in the closing laps at Budds Creek he needed a little help to clinch the title. As it turned out, Tomac needed the perfect performance to clinch his third consecutive championship.

In Moto 1, he narrowly edged Ken Roczen and Musquin, to give the three championship contenders a sweep of the top three spots; that was not enough to regain his cushion.

Roczen was close enough to force Tomac into The Ironman needing to score points to permanently affix the red plate on his Kawasaki in 2020, but just as Tomac’s season has been marked by second half improvements, Roczen’s has been marred by a lack of performance in the second motos.

Musquin passed Roczen late in Moto 2 last week and could have extended the drama one more week if he could have caught second-place Jason Anderson. Musquin could not erase an 11-second deficit to the runner-up and now Tomac’s almost perfect season has a distinctly perfect feel to it.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

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