Matt Crafton, a 20-year veteran of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, turned in a solid performance on Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway in a rare appearance in a Cup car.
Crafton, who has just one official career start in NASCAR’s elite series, took over the No. 21 Menards/Tarkett Flooring Ford Mustang from Paul Menard, who got out Sunday afternoon after the race’s first stage due to concerns about issues with his neck.
Crafton rejoined the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at the rear of the pack when racing resumed after a one-day delay due to rain. He ran in the back of the pack until a round of green-flag pit stops midway through the race’s second stage.
As drivers were changing lanes to enter pit road, Crafton’s Mustang was clipped and sustained substantial damage to the front end. To make matters worse, he was nabbed for speeding on pit road and fell a lap down to the leaders.
But he and the No. 21 Menards/Tarkett team took the setbacks in stride and continued on. At the end of the second stage, crew chief Greg Erwin gambled by taking the wave-around, even though Crafton only had enough fuel to run a dozen or so laps.
Fortune smiled on the team in the form of a quick caution flag, which allowed Crafton to catch up, make a pit stop and rejoin the field in midpack and on the lead lap.
He restarted 23rd and was up to 15th three laps later and in the top 10 after just five laps.
Crafton was scored as high as fourth at one point due to a fuel-only pit stop, and was still in contention for a great finish when he was collected in one of the multi-car wrecks that punctuated Monday’s race.
Still, he was able to make minimum speed, which allowed the Wood Brothers team to continue to work on the nose and splitter of the No. 21 Mustang.
Crafton soldiered on to the checkered flag and posted a 16th-place finish.
Eddie Wood said Crafton drove like a Cup veteran.
“Matt did a great job,” he said. “He drove a very smart race.
Wood also said the No. 21 crew did a good job keeping the car on the track until the finish.
“It was almost to the point that they couldn’t fix it,” he said. “There was so much aero damage to the front that it looked like a bulldozer. I was surprised they were able to get the splitter up off the race track, but they did and allowed Matt to be running at the finish in a race where a lot of others weren’t.”
Menard returns to the seat this weekend at Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400.