There was a brief possibility during the closing stages of the Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan International Speedway that Matt Crafton could have theoretically went on to accumulate the most points this season and yet not have participated in the Gander Outdoor NASCAR Truck Series playoff.
He finished the regular season second in the championship standings behind Grant Enfinger but was also the final driver to have clinched a spot in the seven-race elimination tournament.
Had Ben Rhodes, Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton or Sheldon Creed won on Saturday, it would have come at the expense of Crafton, who despite going winless over his past 51 starts, is still putting up championship caliber numbers.
After all, Crafton only has two finishes outside of the top-10 this season and a series leading 7.2 average.
He says he didnât feel nervous entering the weekend but would have felt victimized by an unfair system if he had been denied a spot in the playoffs.
“I honestly didn’t think about it,” the two-time Truck Series champion said after the race. “If we didn’t get there, it would have been a shame to be second in points and have the best average finish of anyone all year in the Truck Series and still be knocked out.
“That would be sad because we should have won, but really, it would be sad on everyone’s part. How do you have the best finish in the Truck Series and still be knocked out of the playoffs?”
Crafton won a combined three races during his back-to-back championship years of 2013 and 2014. He did so by posting a 7.5 average combined finish â marginally worse than his current form.
Without saying so directly, Crafton surely takes umbrage to a driver like Tyler Ankrum missing several races at the start of the year due to an age restriction and then start-and-parking two other races with a different team just to maintain his championship eligibility.
“In racing, where I come from you put a whole season together to win a championship,” Crafton said. “You don’t just win one race and flounder around all year to make it to Homestead. You can do that now.”
Kyle Busch won the 2015 Cup Series championship after missing the first 11 races of the season due an injury in the season-opening NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Crafton actually drove the Daytona 500 in Buschâs car the following afternoon. He received an injury waiver from the sanctioning body and become playoff eligible by winning in his fifth race back.
He won four more times, including the season finale at Homestead.
But Crafton doesnât believe championships should be earned based on partial-season performance. He believes that NASCAR has tried to mimic other sports at the detriment to its motorsporting integrity.
“We try to be consistent and efficient, not shoot ourselves in the foot and that’s what we’ve done with our championships in the past,” he said. “We’ve outsmarted them. We’ve won one race and had a fifth-place average. We did something that had never been done before in 2013, completing every lap to win the championship.
“In 2014, we won two races and were consistent, and then the next year we won six races and didnât win the championship. We had too many DNFs that year. We have to put a full season together. That’s my opinion. Too much stick and ball. We need to focus on being the best version of NASCAR we can be. That’s my opinion.”
Meanwhile, as it pertains to his own championship under this format, he feels he should be able to win at least once during the next seven races — especially since there are a lot of tracks where throttle control will mean more than engineering.
“I think we’ll be alright because the places we go to the rest of the way, we actually have to use two feet and not just hold it wide-open all day long,” Crafton said. “We have fast trucks but our F-150 is good when you have to lift and actually steer the thing, get off the corner and use both pedals.
He believes Bristol, Mosport, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead better suit his strengths.
“Do we need a little bit more speed? Without a doubt,” Crafton said. “We’ll get it.”