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SPARTA, Ky. -- For Matt Crafton, it was an ironclad caveat -- he was going to drive a good car, or he wasn't going to drive it at all.
That uncompromising stance is one reason why the 37-year-old NASCAR veteran didn't make his debut in the NASCAR Nationwide Series until Friday night at Kentucky Speedway. But the wait paid off, as Crafton took fuel only on a late pit stop, briefly seized the lead and then held on to third place after the event was ended by rain 30 laps short of its scheduled finish.
"I've always wanted to drive a good Nationwide car and show people I can do this," said Crafton, the current points leader in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. "I've raced the trucks for a long time, I've run really good in the trucks. But to get this opportunity ? is awesome."
Driving a No. 33 Richard Childress Racing entry overseen by crew chief Ernie Cope, Crafton got up to speed quickly for a driver making his first appearance in the series. He was among the fastest in practice, qualified eighth and ran among the leaders for much of Friday night, even in a stacked field that included NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heavyweights Kyle Busch and race winner Brad Keselowski.
His only mistake was running the car dry as he approached pit road for a green-flag stop midway through the race, which prompted the fuel-only move later on. "We just had to roll the dice to see if we could get track position," he said. Remembering Thursday's Truck Series race where some drivers who took only fuel managed to stay out front, Crafton did the same thing, and left the pits with the lead. Although his car got loose enough to allow Keselowski and Elliott Sadler to get by, Crafton held on to third until the rain came.
Light rain sent the cars to pit road and then turned to heavy rain, washing out the remainder of the event. Crafton's first Nationwide race was worth the wait -- even if he seemed ready to risk his finishing position for one more chance at a victory, had the rain stopped and the track dried in time.
"If we would have gone back green, it was going to be interesting going into Turn 1," he said. "I was going to make something happen. It was going to be ugly or it was going to be good."
A three-time winner on the Truck Series, Crafton has long been a fixture in NASCAR. Driving for Ohio-based ThorSport Racing, he holds a 22-point lead over Jeb Burton after Thursday night's 10th-place finish at Kentucky. The central California native said he's had offers to pilot Nationwide cars before this weekend, but turned them all down because they weren't the caliber of vehicle he wanted to drive.
"I've had people call me to drive stuff you're going to run 15th to 25th in, and I have no desire to do that," he said "There are a lot of really good race cars drivers that run (that kind of) stuff in Cup. One of my really good friends, he's with an underfunded team. David Gilliland, he's a great race car driver, but just not in the best stuff. And I don't want to be like that. I would rather run the Truck Series, run some Nationwide races, run up front, win races. That's going to make me a lot happier throughout the week."
The key to this weekend's effort was John Menard, who owns the home-improvement chain that backs son Paul Menard's Sprint Cup car at RCR, and well as Crafton's truck at ThorSport. Crafton has had an association with Menard's for a dozen years, and believed the time would come when he'd get a shot in a solid Nationwide car like the one he drove Friday night.
"They've told me the last few years that when the time comes and the moons line up, we'll get you in one of the Menard's cars to run some races," he said. "They made it happen. They told Richard, 'Let's see if we can get Matt in some races,' and they were good with it. This is the first of three, so hopefully we can improve one position each race."
Crafton has two more Nationwide starts in his immediate future -- he will drive the No. 33 again next month at Chicagoland, and when the series returns to Kentucky in September. He wouldn't mind a few more opportunities in the vehicle going forward, while still maintaining his status as a championship contender in the Truck Series.
"I love doing what I'm doing," Crafton said. "Driving Menard's trucks over in the Truck Series, it's awesome. If I could go run more races in this car next year, that would be great. Maybe me and Paul could split some more races or something like that. That would be a perfect world, if he could run some more and I could run some more and somehow split a schedule, I guess. But that's a shot in the dark. Hopefully we run well enough in these three that they want to do it."
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