Matt Crafton snapped a 27-race winless streak at the track fans least expected to win, on a dirt track. Bobby Pierce and Johnny Sauter were among drivers who struggled after series of incidents.
Trucks and dirt. Those two combinations has created some of the most exciting, rough and tough battles of the entire NASCAR national touring calendar. In front of a packed house, Matt Crafton survived the demolition mud war and won the 5th annual Eldora Dirt Derby at the half-mile clay surfaced Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio Wednesday.
It’s Crafton’s 14th career Camping World Truck Series victory, snapping a 27-race winless streak dating back to Charlotte last May.
To improve his dirt track experience, Crafton bought a dirt modified to prepare himself for Eldora. The investment paid off as he held off pole sitter Stewart Friesen, Chase Briscoe, teammate Grant Enfinger and John Hunter Nemechek in a frantic 10-lap dash to the finish.
In an interview, Crafton said his experience racing the dirt modified paid dividends on holding off the leaders during the last restart.
“It helped a lot just learning what the track does and seeing what spots on the race track. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at,” Crafton said. “I kept studying and studying and had a lot of great people. Nick Hoffman came here and helped me during the test. They were telling me go down here in the dirt and spin the tires. I’m like, ‘why?’ But I started doing it and the truck was a rocket ship.”
Several top series regulars and dirt specialists had a rough going because of the penetrating nature Eldora provided. Some fared better, others didn’t.
Pre-race favorite Bobby Pierce struggled throughout the night after being involved in two accidents.
On the fifth lap, J.J. Yeley got loose in turn four and Pierce’s right side hit Yeley’s front bumper and was then turn around by teammate Chris Windom to bring out the first caution.
Pierce sustained cosmetic damage but it was all for not after being caught up in another wreck. Ben Rhodes ran into Sheldon Creed and caused a multi-truck pileup two laps before the competition caution on lap 20.
Pierce along with Rico Abreu, Norm Benning, Harrison Burton and points leader Johnny Sauter were unable to avoid the carnage and all sustained notable damage.
The next caution was brought out on lap 34 after 2015 winner Christopher Bell lost control of his No. 4 Toyota. Bell was then hit by Kaz Grala, destroying the right side of his truck.
Grala’s night ended, finishing 31st. Bell continued the race and worked his way back into the top-10 before the halfway point of the 150-lap race.
Crafton survived the stage one madness and crossed the line in first under caution.
Sauter’s night got worse in stage two when his radiator was punctured after a piece of rock went inside his No. 21 Chevrolet.
Sauter lost six laps when he returned to the track and finished 23rd.
Friesen was in control of stage two until Ty Dillon challenged Friesen for the lead on lap 75.
Friesen held off Dillon and had a one-plus second lead over Dillon until a late stage caution came out on lap 85 after Ray Ciccarelli was spun around by Creed near start-finish.
Stage two ended in a one-lap shootout but a fantastic restart by Friesen was good enough to win the stage. Dillon finished second and Bell bounced back to cross the line in fourth.
Crafton pitted at the end of stage one but couldn’t regain the lead and finished ninth with one stage remaining.
Friesen’s night changed after his right front tire went down, forcing his pit crew to make an unscheduled pit stop before the final stage. The crew changed all four tires and tightened up his truck but lost the lead to Bell. Friesen restarted 14th.
It wasn’t long until Friesen cracked the top 5. Once clearing Briscoe on lap 99, Friesen set his eyes on Bell who had a two second lead.
Friesen dived bombed for the lead with 41 laps to go but unable to clear Bell as Friesen struggled to gain momentum entering turn four.
Friesen continued his battle with Bell for several laps until sticking his truck in front of Bell with 37 to go.
On lap 118, Dillon lost a tire and brought out another caution and bunched up the field for another restart.
With 25 laps to go, Bell’s chances of winning for the second time was dashed after a right front tire went down.
Bell coasted his truck around the track but a Ciccarelli spin changed everything a lap later. Not only Bell caught a lucky break, it brought another driver back in contention, Bobby Pierce.
Pierce was in sixth on the next restart while Bell pitted for four new tires and restarted in 14th.
The race restarted once again with 19 laps to go as Friesen had to hold off Crafton and Nemechek for the race lead.
Crafton stormed on the outside line and took the lead from Friesen in turn two with 17 laps to go.
Three laps later, Ciccarelli spun for the third time and brought out another caution.
The caution gave the leaders a chance to run the bottom lane and gained moisture for better grip on their tires.
Crafton got the advantage on the final restart. Briscoe cleared Friesen for second as it was cruise control for the former two-time champion.
The one track that’s eluded Crafton became another track he has conquered in his 18-year Truck Series career.
Crafton said they had to make changes on the final stage after a disappointing second stage.
“We darn right just stunk in stage two but it was my fault,” Crafton said. “We over tightened on the first run and we were pretty good. I thought we were a little bit too free (in stage two), we tightened up and we just went back to exactly the way we started the race.”
Crafton said he needed to put his No. 88 Toyota near the wall for better speed.
“Rico (Abreu) and them guys drove by me up top and I’m like, ‘Crafton, you got to put this thing on the fence down there,’” Crafton said. “I knew I was getting beat down there and I found some in the middle of turn one and two and finally at the end I’m like, ‘well, we’re going to tear the right side of this thing or take it to victory lane.”
Crafton became only the fifth driver to clinch a playoff berth with a victory and went from trailing Sauter by 89 points to now 51 as he sits fourth in points.
Despite several restarts, Bell only salvaged a ninth-place effort. Bell cut Sauter’s lead down to 7 points.
Bell said his spin resulting Grala hitting his right-side damage cost him the victory.
“I ruined it for my guys. We had the truck to win there but unfortunately I made a mistake early on and it cost us,” Bell said. “My guys worked really hard to get us going again and we got going really good. The truck seemed like it was driving good enough and had a lot of speed in it. I just miscalculated on the spin. The lap before, I had a lot of grip up on the cushion and it held me really good so I tried to make speed up there and was just a little bit too low in the slick and spun out.”
Bell added the right front tire also wrote him off from battling with Crafton for the win.
Friesen finished second after leading a race-high 93 laps.
Friesen said he didn’t have short-run speed to battle Crafton.
“We had a good long-run truck and those guys just burping it there in third gear snugger us on the last restart,” Friesen said. “It stinks. We didn’t come to run second that’s for damn sure but I’m proud of these guys and it’s cool. They knew we were here but just didn’t play out.”
Friesen praised both Crafton and Briscoe’s dirt effort despite a disappointing finish.
“Matt has been doing his homework running the dirt stuff and racing there Briscoe was pretty cool,” Friesen said. “Nothing to really hang our heads around but we still loss.”
Friesen jumped five spots in the standings and sits 17th in points.
Pierce never led a lap nor amounted a challenge on the leaders and finished sixth after his two early accidents.
Truck Series regulars Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Bell and Austin Cindric rounded out the top-10.
The truck drivers return to the asphalt July 29 and race in the 60-lap Overton’s 150 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.