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Just four races into the 2013 season, ThorSport Racing has visited Victory Lane in three of four events, while drivers Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter sit one-two in the Camping World Truck Series championship standings. Despite a lackluster year last season, both Crafton and Sauter have finished in the top 10 in points for six and four consecutive year, respectively, making their organization the closest thing to “dynasty” you can get in one of NASCAR’s lower divisions. So what is the key to their success and longevity in the sport? I sat down with Crafton at Kansas Speedway almost two weeks ago, after the Truck Series’ final practice session, to talk a little about just that.
It all began for ThorSport when the team debuted in the 1996 Sears Auto Center 200, at the Milwaukee Mile, with Terry Cook behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. After starting 24th, Cook finished 12th before suffering a pair of finishes outside the top 20. He ran a handful of events in 1997 as well before the team secured enough sponsorship to race the full season in 1998. It was that year that saw the organization score its first trip to Victory Lane, with Cook at Flemington Speedway.
Fast forward to the last race of the 2000 season, when Matt Crafton replaced Cook and finished a solid ninth in his series debut. The following year, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet began his full-time career with the organization and has been away from the team for just a single season, one he spent with Kevin Harvick, Inc. But it wasn’t long before Crafton was back with the team he debuted in the series with, and team ownership sat at the center of his decision.
“The biggest thing is Duke and Rhonda Thorson. They’ve been so loyal and [Duke] has been a man of his word; everything he’s ever told me, he’s done,” Crafton said at Kansas Speedway last month. “There’s so many owners that you deal with in this sport that aren’t close to that. The year after I left and went to KHI, I had opportunities with other places, and I talked to Duke Thorson and he told me again what his game plan was from day one.”
Enter Johnny Sauter. In 2009, Sauter joined the team full-time and still runs today through a partnership with Curb Records owner Mike Curb. Since 2009, ThorSport has fielded two full-time entries and a third truck when a driver / sponsor combination has made itself available. Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill, Dakoda Armstrong and even Todd Bodine have made appearances in the team’s third entry, and the latter has signed yet another event, the upcoming race at Charlotte, to run a No. 13 Toyota.
That’s right. At the end of the 2011 season, ThorSport announced its departure from Chevrolet, the manufacturer the organization had been partnered with for more than 15 years. But the learning curve was more than the team bargained for.
“That was a huge, huge change. At first, we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn’t going to be that big. We started the season—we ran at Daytona, we ran okay and we both wrecked,” Crafton said, explaining why 2012 was a down year. “We went to Martinsville and Rockingham where we both ran really good, and then we went on our mile-and-a-half stretch. That was when we thought ‘Oh boy. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ We went to Kansas and me and Johnny ran 15th to 18th all day, and that was when we knew we were in trouble.”
But toward the end of 2012, after rebuilding their trucks in the middle of the summer, the ThorSport trucks again began showing the signs of life that they enjoyed with Chevrolet. That momentum — and the confidence that comes with it — has carried right on through to this year, along with the veteran’s trademark consistency. With only three wins, he’s not the flashiest driver but he’s also one who tends to bring his Truck home strong, close to the front and in one piece.
“I’ve always tried to pride myself in being there each and every week—put yourself in the top 5 and the wins will come. But to win the war, you’ve gotta win battles here and there, and you have to pick and choose,” Crafton said. “If you’re going to have to finish fifth, finish fifth—don’t do something stupid to finish fourth or third and get yourself torn up. We’re here to win the war — the championship.”
Of course, as with much of NASCAR, Crafton made it clear that part of their success comes down to having a second driver and team to bounce ideas off of and share information with.
“Johnny has definitely, definitely been a great help to the whole organization. I had teammates and stuff that were here [before], but I was always the veteran trying to teach the rookie,” he said. “And now I’ve got another veteran to lean on, and you see the teams that are more successful in the Truck Series usually have more veterans to bounce stuff off of and push each other. At the end of the day, you want to beat your teammate. If your teammate raises the bar, you push to beat him.”
But even though you have a pair of veterans able to bounce information off of each other, it’s not like they’re running the same thing come race day.
“I can honestly tell you, we have never run the same setup,” Crafton revealed, in stark contrast to organizations like Hendrick Motorsports, where setups are often shared once a team is struggling. “We haven’t even tried, to be honest. There’s definitely bits and pieces but never the same setup.”
Sounds like two people confident and comfortable enough to go their own way, within an organization that offers their complete support. The day after I spoke with Crafton at Kansas about the team’s longevity, among other things, he was in Victory Lane, having scored his third career win. And, once again, he placed the majority of the success at the feet of his team owners.
“For sure, this is the fulfillment of a dream. If you would have asked me about this (Friday) I would’ve said I’d be happy with a top 10, as bad as that truck was — but it just shows what this whole organization is made of, with that they did from (Friday) to (Saturday),” Crafton said in Victory Lane. “I can’t thank Menards enough, Toyota — and (owners) Duke and Rhonda Thorson. Doing it out of Sandusky, Ohio — everybody said (running a race team away from the Charlotte, N.C., area) can’t be done — and we’re making fools out of all the ones that said it can’t be done.”
It appears that’s just what the team is doing, each and every week, as Crafton and Sauter continue to make a case that ThorSport is the strongest team in the Truck Series garage this season. And even better news for the organization is that though there has been a somewhat revolving door over their third truck, the stability of their other two is almost unheard of in today’s climate … and according to Crafton, there’s a reason for that.
“Menards has been just awesome to have as sponsor,” he said, highlighting John Menard’s continued involvement and support. “As long as Menards has been with us, it says a lot.”
That creates an environment for winning, consistency, and long-term success. No wonder Thorsport’s driver has never left. Many have wondered why Crafton has simply remained in the Truck Series rather than move his way up the development ladder, but to hear him explain his reasoning makes perfect sense.
“I’m not going to say I’ve had no desire to run Cup or Nationwide Series races; at the end of the day, that’s our goal. Most any driver’s goal is to go run Cup races and win races there, but I get paid to do what I love to do,” Crafton said. “Why could you ask for more? You could go race Cup on Sunday and get paid a lot more, but at the end of the day, I get paid to go race race trucks [and be competitive]. It’s the awesomest job in the world. I live comfortably and it’s awesome.”
“There’s been times when Cup teams have offered me stuff, but it’s not teams that I’m going to go out there and want to run 30th with. I’m out here to win races. I could go probably run 30th in a Cup race and make more than I do in a Truck race, but if you’re out here to run 30th, you shouldn’t be running. I’m out here to win races and do what I love to do, all while running up front.”
While the series is only four races in, there’s reason to believe that ThorSport Racing will excel for much of the season, becoming the top contender for the season title. As it stands now, there’s a distinct possibility the Crafton / Sauter duo could separate themselves from the rest of the field, with Crafton already well clear of the next driver in line, rookie Jeb Burton. Yes, the strength teams like Turner Scott Motorsports and Brad Keselowski Racing have struggled early; they’d both like something to say about that before the year is done.
But if Crafton and Thorsport keep clicking on all cylinders, they won’t have a chance.
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