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Road Weary Truckers Hit Texas Chasing Title

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2015
Erik Jones has the points lead as the Camping World Truck Series begins its important weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

Erik Jones has the points lead as the Camping World Truck Series begins its important weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Erik Jones admittedly is a little sleep-deficient these days, and Matt Crafton can commiserate.  The two-time/reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Crafton knows the road to the title winds through Insomnia, USA.

bugfeature“I know how it was trying to win my first championship…just sleepless nights,” Crafton said during a press conference Thursday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. “And when you’re the points-leader you’re going, ‘What can go wrong? What? Can I make a mistake?’^”

Crafton’s victory on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway last Saturday afternoon pulled him to within 10 points of Jones heading into Friday night’s 17th annual WinStar World Casino & Resort 350 at TMS. Crafton’s season-high fifth victory, and Jones’ 10th-place result, shaved 13 points off of Jones’ advantage with only three races remaining.  Tyler Reddick sits third overall after a fifth-place finish at Martinsville, just 13 points behind the leader.

“It’s his (Jones’) championship to lose and ours to win right now,” said Crafton, seated between his title rivals in the track’s infield media center. “He’s got to be on defense. And all

Matt Crafton is chasing a third straight championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

Matt Crafton is chasing a third truck series championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

we’ve got to do is play offense and try not to make any mistakes and he’s got to do the same thing. We all do and we just can’t have any bad luck.

“Honestly, we’ve all three had very, very fast trucks. I’ve had horrendous luck and led a lot of laps the last few races and hopefully the best man wins at the end.”

Truck qualifying is scheduled for 4:40 p.m. (EST) Friday, with the 147-lap/220.5-mile race to air on Fox Sports 1 at 8:30 p.m. (EST). Still dealing from a position of power, Jones seemed relatively unfazed by Crafton’s verbal challenge.

“Need to do a lot better job than we’ve done the last week at Martinsville and then really at Chicago before that,” said Jones, a 19-year-old native of Byron, Mich., and driver of the No. 4 Toyota Tundra fielded by Kyle Busch Motorsports. “So I think these next three tracks coming up – here at Texas we were fast in the spring, in Phoenix we’ve been fast there always and I think they’ll be a lot better off for us, so we’ll see. I think we can definitely go out and contend for a win here the next three weeks really and just see how it all plays-out.”

The series finale will be contested at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“You know, being in this situation I guess is a new experience for me at this level at least,” said Jones, specifically referring to his battle with Crafton. “I’ve done it in the Late Model stuff and I’ve done it on the owner’s championship side of things, but obviously the No. 88 team and Matt and Tyler have been running well the last few weeks and gained points back up on us that we had made up. So we just need to make sure we’re doing all that we can every week to get out and run as well as we can and just go out and get good finishes.

“Like I said, I feel like Martinsville was definitely going to be a rough one for us and it was. It didn’t work out how we wanted it to, so we’ll go into this weekend and the next few with definitely high hopes that these tracks have been good to us in the past and not only good to me at KBM but KBM in general. Hopefully we can come out of here with some strong runs and maintain this point lead.”

Crafton, driver of the No. 88 Damp Rid/Menards Toyota Tundra fielded by ThorSport Racing, topped the speed chart during the first of two practices Thursday around TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval with a lap at 179.862 mph. Reddick was 10th at 177.708 mph with Jones 14th at 177.387 mph. With rain threatening the second practice, Cameron Hayley _ Crafton’s ThorSport Racing teammate _ led the final practice at 179.164 mph. Crafton was 12th at 176.171 mph, followed by Jones in 13th at 175.844 mph and Reddick in 17th at 174.188 mph.

Crafton will be chasing a season sweep at TMS, as he looks to follow his victory in June’s WinStar World Casino & Resort 400. A 39-year-old native of Tulare, Calif., Crafton has excelled at TMS during his 29 career starts, recording 10 top-fives and 18 top-10s _ tops in both categories. Crafton is working on a streak of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at TMS that includes three results of second or better. In addition, Crafton has finished 10th or better in 14 of his last 15 starts on 1.5-mile ovals. Included in that stretch are five wins.

Asked if all that experience in Fort Worth gives him an advantage over his teen-aged rivals, Crafton said, “I’m not worried about it. Like I said, I’m just going to go into the next three races and try to lead the most laps and win the race.”

In his three Truck Series starts at Texas, Reddick has one top-10 finish _ a fourth-place showing from the pole last fall. Winner of the prestigious season-opener at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway for Brad Keselowski Racing, Reddick enters Friday’s race riding a streak of three consecutive top-10s.

“I feel like the last couple of races we’ve got to where we needed to be,” said Reddick, a 19-year-old native of Corning, Calif., and driver of the No. 19 Stoney Creek Records Ford F150. “We hit a rough patch there over the summer that we really didn’t need. That’s going to happen sometime and it’s how you bounce back from that, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job.  We’re right there. It’s come down to the last three races; it’ll be interesting to see who comes out on top. It’s anyone’s best guess from here.”

Jones’ record at TMS is highlighted by his first XFINITY Series victory in April’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 _ a race in which he led 79 laps and outdueled Sprint Cup stars Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. while subbing for the injured Busch. Jones followed that performance by qualifying on-pole for the Truck Series race here in June. Jones led 68 laps before an electrical glitch relegated him to a 15th-place finish. Jones enters Friday night’s NCWTS race with a streak of 12 consecutive top-10 finishes.

Winning this championship, Jones said, would be significant on several levels. Asked what he is most looking forward to this offseason, Jones said, “Sleep! It seems like it’s been busy here the last few weeks especially for me _ just been kind of running around and trying to do a lot of things in a lot of different directions, so it’d be nice to just get some rest and for me be home in Michigan. I haven’t been home in quite a while.”

Jones is expected to be officially announced Friday as substitute driver for Cup regular Matt Kenseth, the Joe Gibbs Racing ace and 2003 series champion who lost a pair of appeals of his NASCAR-imposed two-race suspension Thursday. NASCAR suspended Kenseth on Tuesday from participating in the Chase for the Sprint Cup races at TMS and the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway after ruling he intentionally crashed into Joey Logano of Penske Racing during the late stages of Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

A start in Kenseth’s No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 would round-out a three-races –in-as-many-days schedule for Jones but not necessarily distract him from his Truck Series duties.

“Well, for me, honestly more than winning it for myself, just giving back to KBM _ the whole organization _ for Kyle, you know?” Jones said. “Obviously, I want to win the championship, but Kyle’s wanted a driver’s championship since he started his program in the Truck Series and hasn’t been able to get it with a few drivers. So if I could bring that back for him, you know, that’d kind of be just a nice ‘thank you’ for the last three years and what he’s done for me over those three years.

“Obviously, we all want to win it as an organization and I want to win it as well. It’s nice to know what we’re doing next year, but for me to have a Truck Series championship and know that we can have the opportunity to get an XFINITY Series championship next year (with JGR), it’d be nice to have both of those series championships. There’s only a few guys that have been able to win in both those series, so for me it’s kind of the stats-thing. You always want to be able to look back at those stats, and getting that championship trophy would just be kind of one of the cool steps in my career I would be able to hopefully accomplish.”

Crafton, meanwhile, has his own stats-thing to consider. With a victory Friday night, Crafton would become just the third driver in TMS history to sweep its Truck Series races in the same season. Crafton is looking to join teammate Johnny Sauter (2012) and Brendan Gaughan (2002 and again in ‘03) as the only drivers to accomplish that feat.

Crafton, who last year became the first NCWTS driver to win consecutive championships, can extend that historical footnote with his third title in a row. And unlike his two title rivals, Crafton isn’t in a rush to graduate to Cup. “I’m very happy doing what I’m doing,” said Crafton, whose 29 NCWTS starts at TMS are second only to native Texan David Starr’s 31. “As long as I can be competitive, I wouldn’t want to go run in any other series and run 20th to 43rd _ that’s just not me.

“There’s a reason why I’ve stayed in the Camping World Truck Series _ it’s great racing. I think any race fan would believe in saying the same thing. If you want to watch a great race on Friday night or Saturday, you’re going to watch a Truck race, so that’s huge in my part and it’s not just about the money. It’s about knowing you can win races. Duke and Rhonda Thorson (team owners) and Menards have been with me a long time and I’m very happy there.”

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Race: WinStar World Casino 350

Place: Texas Motor Speedway

Date and Time: Friday, Nov. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90

Distance: 220.5 miles (147 laps)

What to Watch For: Spring 2013 Texas winner Jeb Burton makes his NASCARCamping World Truck Series season debut in the No. 00 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. …NASCAR Next member John Hunter Nemechek tries to notch his seventh top-10 finish in eight starts after placing runner-up at Martinsville. … Ryan Blaney returns to the No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford for the first time since taking it to Victory Lane in August at Bristol.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2015
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