Matt Crafton relishes USAC midget chance in DuQuoin, ready for more dirt 2018

(Photo: Aaron Bearden/Kickin' the Tires)

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Matt Crafton didn’t come into 2017 with plans to make his USAC National Midget debut.

But when the opportunity arose with Toyota Racing, the two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion couldn’t turn it down.

“One night me and Jack Irving (Director, Team & Support Services at Toyota Racing Development) were talking about doing it,” Crafton told Kickin’ the Tires. “Would I race one? Would I try it?”

Crafton’s response?

Absolutely.

“I’m a racer,” he said. “I come from old-school racing, and would race anything with a steering wheel and four tires, so we did it.”

Crafton’s opportunity came in Saturday’s Junior Knepper 55 – a special non-points USAC race on an indoor sixth-mile oval at the Southern Illinois Center in DuQuoin, Illinois.

The Eldora Speedway winner was paired with Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM) – one of dirt racing’s top teams – and given the opportunity to compete alongside fellow NASCAR stars Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., along with a bevy of both local and national dirt veterans as part of the event’s 56-car field.

The 41-year-old saw his first opportunity to test out the ‘Mini Magic Mile’ when participants ran through their traditional opening hot lap sessions.

As might be anticipated, the transition proved far from seamless. Crafton was passed by three of his fellow competitors in the short practice session, struggling as he tested out both the high and low lines.

The biggest challenge?

“Just learning about driving off of the right-rear,” Crafton said. “Everything I’ve ever driven in my life, you don’t drive off of the right-rear. That’s 100% the wrong thing to do.

“Teaching yourself to do what you’re typically not supposed to do is difficult. It’s hard to break that habit, but I finally got it.”

His first taste of the track was a challenge. But when the Californian was given a second hot lap opportunity at the end of the practice session, he finally began to grasp his No. 67 midget’s handling.

“After the first practice, I thought we might have been in trouble,” he said. “But then it just started coming to me, and I started figuring it out.”

Crafton rolled off fourth in the seventh and final heat of the night courtesy of his pill draw earlier in the day. While he was unable to muster many passing attempts, the Truck Series vet held his own to finish in the same position.

With USAC’s unique passing points format utilized in Saturday’s event, Crafton’s fourth-place run was enough to help him avoid the C-Main and instead transfer directly to the first of four 12-lap qualifying races.

But while he once again ran suitably on-track, Crafton managed only an eighth-place finish in the race. In the end that relegated him to the second of two B-Mains, where he would need a top-four result to advance to the 55-lap feature.

Crafton started in the front half of the 16-car field for the race – within sight of the four transfer positions. But his race was ultimately undone during an early crash on the frontstretch. Crafton missed the brunt of the incident, but stalled his machine just past the start-finish line in the process.

The incident led to Crafton being sent to the back of the field as a part of the caution.

Try as he might, Crafton was unable to make the necessary passes to rise back into contention from there. The dirt midget newcomer ultimately crossed the line for the final time in 13th, eliminated from the field after the B-Main.

It wasn’t the end result Crafton wanted. But considering his complete lack of experience, the Toyota Racing veteran still believed his first midget race was a positive one.

“It went good,” Crafton said of his night. “You definitely want to be able to make the A-Main, but at the end of the day I felt that we had a shot. That’s all we could ask for, especially with me never sitting in one and firing one off until today.

“I had a blast. I can’t thank everyone at Toyota, Jack Irving and Keith Kunz Motorsports enough for giving me an opportunity to drive these things. Hopefully it won’t be my last one.”

While he was eliminated early, Crafton stayed at the event to watch the feature and support KKM from the grandstands.

In the end it was one of his teammates – Bell, who Crafton had just competed against for the Truck Series title one month earlier at Homestead-Miami Speedway – that took home the victory. With the Oklahoman set to move up to the XFINITY Series next season, Crafton cherished the opportunity to work with him as teammates for a day.

“It was fun,” Crafton said. “Me and Christopher – we’ve always raced each other with respect. We’ve had some problems on the race-track, but at the end of the day when you’re racing side-by-side with people and putting yourself on the edge, stuff’s gonna happen.

“You’re gonna lean on each other. You’re gonna have little mistakes, but you’re never going to go out there and just run each other over. I think Christopher’s respected me, and I’ve respected Christopher. He’s been a blast. He’s a great kid, and he’s got a bright future.”

With his first dirt midget race complete, Crafton expressed interest in competing in the machines again someday down the road, saying “I would definitely go do it again, without a doubt. Just try to find the right races and see if I can fit it in my schedule and win.”

How long it will be before Crafton returns to a dirt midget remains to be seen. Some wondered whether Crafton’s appearance in DuQuoin – a track many visit to prep for the Chili Bowl Nationals in January – could be a lead-in to a run in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I’ve heard a little bit about it before,” Crafton joked of the race. “I hear a lot of people barking in my ear to go do it, but we’ll see.”

But any hopes for Crafton to run the legendary event could be undone by his other dirt plans for the coming year. He intends to race dirt modifieds once again in 2018, a hobby he began to approach more seriously after acquiring his own car for 2017.

The prep work for the coming season could prove too time-consuming for any thoughts of a Chili Bowl run.

“I’ll definitely be running my modified again next year,” Crafton said. “I’m building a brand new one during January.

“That would be one of the things that would kind of hold me back from running the Chili Bowl. I’m building a brand new car, and I’m not getting it until January and have to literally build it from the ground up. There’s not too much help that I have doing it, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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