ROSSBURG, Ohio — In a battle of dirt track kingpin versus NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Matt Crafton ultimately emerged from the dust with an emotional victory in Wednesday night’s Eldora Dirt Derby.
Despite his relative lack of dirt racing chops, Crafton found his rhythm on the high lane with 17 laps to go, motoring around polesitter and race-long dominator Stewart Friesen and never looking back en route to his 14th-career series win and first of the season.
“My first dirt win … this is a lot of fun,” said Crafton. “In the second part of that race, we down-right just stunk. It was my fault. We over-tightened it a little bit in the first run. It got free and we just went back to the way we started the race.”
“I knew I was getting beat down low. Finally at the end, I said, ‘Well, we may have to tear the right side off to get the win.’ I started doing it and this truck became a rocket ship.”
The win broke a 27-race, 14-month long winless drought for the two-time titleholder, who bought a dirt modified specifically to improve his skillset for the Eldora Truck race and proved Wednesday night that move was a good investment.
“I’ve had to spend a lot of my own money to learn how to do this (race dirt),” Crafton laughed. “About January of this year, just before Florida Speedweeks, I decided I wanted to be in control of my own destiny if we were going to do this and do it right.”
“My dad and I brought a car back from Owensboro, Kentucky … we thrashed on it in the shop … went down, ran in Florida in February … learned a lot, and now, here we are.”
After Crafton and Friesen split the first two stage wins, racing in the final stage kicked off with 59 laps to go, with Christopher Bell out front despite heavy damage from a lap 35 crash where he spun off Turn 2 and was pummeled by Kaz Grala.
Bell managed to find enough speed in his truck to hold the point off the restart, while Friesen motored forward from sixth after making his final pit stop for tires and adjustments.
It was a methodical charge forward for Friesen, who was back inside the top five within two laps of the restart, had fourth in another two laps and found himself passing Chase Briscoe for second just prior to the 50 to go mark.
From there, it was a march forward for the Ontario, Canada native, who used both top and bottom around the half-mile dirt oval to chew into Bell’s gap in an effort to reclaim control.
Friesen finally slipped around Bell’s outside with 37 to go, surging to the point off the exit of Turn 4 and appearing to be long gone into the Ohio night.
But then the cautions came, tightening up the field and giving everyone a chance to reset.
Ty Dillon slowed with a flat tire off Turn 2 with 32 laps left, and then a spin by Ray Ciccarelli less than a lap after the next restart set the stage for a game-changing move by Crafton when the green flag flew with 19 to go.
That was when Crafton pounced, barreling to the top while Friesen tried for all he could muster on the bottom to stay in front, to no avail in the end.
Though a final yellow for another Ciccarelli spin gave Friesen one last chance on a 10-lap shootout, his storybook ending just wasn’t meant to be.
“Congrats to Matt; he’s been doing his homework on the dirt and it paid off,” said Friesen. “We didn’t come here to run second … that’s for damn sure, but I’m proud of these guys. They worked hard to get this truck dialed in.”
“We had a great truck. (Crafton) just got rolling on the top when it cleaned up, and I was so committed to the bottom and there in the middle … and he just found a line and got us. It burns. Second sucks.”
Chase Briscoe came home third in a backup truck, after he destroyed his primary truck in a vicious half-flip during Tuesday night’s final practice session. Grant Enfinger and John Hunter Nemechek were fourth and fifth, respectively.
Despite all but junking his car in his heat race, coming from the back of the last chance qualifier to win it, starting 26th and going a lap down after a multi-car crash on lap five, Bobby Pierce somehow rallied to record a sixth-place finish for long-time Truck team owner Mike Mittler.
Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Bell and Austin Cindric completed the top 10.
Bell faded thanks to a flat right front tire that reared its head on a restart with 24 laps to go.
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…