Crafton and Joiner Dynamic Duo

Matt Crafton; Carl Joiner Jr.

With the help of crew chief Carl Joiner Jr. (right), Matt Crafton has soared to the Camping World Truck Series points lead at the season's halfway point. (Photo: Getty Images)

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Matt Crafton pestered and pleaded, trying to convince Carl Joiner Jr. to work on Crafton’s Southwest Series Late Model team.  When Joiner relented in 1999, Crafton reacted without haste.

"I jumped in my truck and didn’t give him any time to renege on the deal," Crafton said, laughing at the memory.  "I drove six hours to go pick him up and make sure he was loading up."

They stayed with Crafton’s parents before moving into an apartment.  Their home really was the track.  Crafton won the 2000 Southwest Series title with Joiner on his crew.  When Crafton moved to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Joiner stayed behind.  They later reunited.  Joiner became Crafton’s crew chief chief last season after spending eight years with the team.

A journey that includes a championship could yield another title this season.  Crafton leads the Truck point standings heading into Saturday’s Michigan National Guard 200 at Michigan International Speedway.

Crafton is cautious about discussing the championship even though he has a 52-point lead on Jeb Burton.  Half the season’s 22 races remain.  Crafton knows what can happen.  He understands how difficult championships are to win.  He finished second in the Truck points in 2009.  Three other times, he placed in the top five in points.  But he’s never won the championship.

It's been a long wait for the 37-year-old Crafton.  Sometimes, the best moments take the longest to achieve.  He will make his 306th career Truck Series start Saturday, moving him into the top five on the all-time series list.  Crafton has never missed a Truck race since competing in the 2000 season finale - putting him first on the all-time series list of consecutive starts.

He’s seen championships won and lost.  He’s won and lost races.  He’s watched others celebrate through the years.  Maybe now, it will be his turn.

There are positive signs.  He’s the only driver to score a top-10 finish in all 11 races.  No other driver has more than seven top-10 finishes.  He’s the only driver to complete all 1,780 laps run.

It’s all going so well ... so far.  Joiner understands Crafton’s hesitance to talk about winning the title.

"We haven’t even really started racing," Joiner said.  "I told my guys the months of August and September, we've really got to dig our heels in and make sure we’ve got quality trucks."

Michigan starts a stretch of five races within a month, the busiest period of the season.  The ThorSport Racing team has been tested before.  The group showed its character in a victory, the third of Crafton’s Truck career, at Kansas Speedway in April.  It was how the team won that meant the most.

The team struggled before the race.  Crafton was 19th in the final practice.

"We were all super-flustered," Crafton said.  "I wasn’t very happy.  Me and Junior, we’re pretty much like brothers, best friends.  We can show each other emotion.  We’ll kick, rant, scream and rave about stuff, move on and do our jobs.  That’s kind of what we were doing."

Joiner said they changed everything that they could on the truck and then won.

"It was huge for us," he said.  "It’s a big part of the reason that we’ve got the confidence and the faith we do right now."

At Dover, the team went through the same thing.  Crafton was 17th in the final practice session.  Again, they changed about everything they could.  He finished second to Kyle Busch.

It has been more challenging lately for Crafton and Joiner.  Crafton finished 10th at Kentucky.  He qualified 16th and finished sixth at Iowa.  He placed eighth at Eldora, but admits he was cautious because of the aggression on the track.  He could afford to be since he finished ahead of his main championship rivals.  Going for fourth on the last lap at Pocono two weeks ago, Crafton nearly lost control of the truck and fell to eighth at the finish.

"We get mad when we’re eighth, when we’re 10th and when we’re sixth," Crafton said.  "Once you win, once you get in the top five, that’s all you want."

Even with such frustrations, Crafton is more at peace.  He married in January 2012 - Joiner was his best man - and daughter Elladee was born April 26 of this year, less than a week after Crafton’s Kansas victory.

Crafton says his daughter already has made him a better racer.

"When you have a bad day and you’re terrible in practice, you can come back to the motorhome or go wherever she is and she smiles, and you forget about it all," he said.  "It does hit the reset button.  You can forget about it for a little while.  You don’t have to sit and dwell on (the struggles) for hours on end.  You can over-think things.  I don’t say that’s what I’ve done, but I can see it can definitely help without a doubt."

Maybe that will help him win his first Truck title.  Should he do so, he’ll celebrate with Joiner, just like they did in the Southwest Series.

Motor Racing Network - "The Voice Of NASCAR" - will have live coverage of Saturday’s Michigan National Guard 200 beginning at 12 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com.

Next MRN Broadcast

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Jan. 18, 2018 1:00 PM ET

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