It feels like a long time coming, but the winningest Super Late Model driver of the Carolinas has finally entered the Snowball Derby.
Matthew Craig has come to Five Flags Speedway in pursuit of the Tom Dawson Trophy, and why wouldn’t he be considered an instant favorite?
He has eight Pro All-Star Series victories, five CARS Tour Super Late Model victories, two Pretoria Racing Association victories and one Southern Super Series triumph.
That’s in addition to the biggest victory of his career — last month’s Florida Governor’s Cup 200 at New Smyrna Speedway against many of the same drivers he will compete against over the next week on the Florida Gulf Coast.
So what made 2019 the right time for the 20-year-old and his family to enter their No. 54?
“There’s a lot of things that went into it,” Craig told Short Track Scene on Thursday following a test session at the track. “It’s just me and (Jeff Craig) my dad. We’ve had help from Gary Crooks along the way but it’s a really small effort.
“With our group and our stuff, we didn’t feel like we could go down there and belong.”
That’s a pretty bold statement from a three-time PASS South and reigning CARS Tour Super Late Model champion.
It speaks to how good they could possibly be this week in Pensacola now that they feel they belong.
And it starts with their Rowdy Manufacturing chassis.
“With Rowdy and having support from (program manager) Cody Glick, there’s a lot of experience we have and built-in speed,” Craig said. “We’re expecting to be fast right out of the gate.”
The No. 54 team tested two cars on Sunday, the car they’ve raced and won with all season, and a new Rowdy car — ultimately choosing old reliable.
“We were really good today,” he said. “We learned a lot. Both cars were pretty close actually. We just feel like we have a notebook on old reliable.”
The Derby will be just his third appearance at Five Flags Speedway. He raced at the track in 2016 and again in September in his Rowdy, qualifying second and finishing sixth, leaving him confident ahead of Derby qualifying on Friday and for the race itself.
That’s especially true now that they can race without a need for pit crews.
But more than anything else, Craig is just happy to finally be able to partake in the Super Bowl of Short Track Racing. He has attended several times as an onlooker and mentioned several times that he hoped to make an attempt.
And that means all the festivities that come with it — the kick-off party, pit party, kart racing and the racing activity itself.
“We’re looking forward to all of it,” Craig said. “We’ve only showed up on Friday to watch on race weekend. This whole week is big. Everyone who matters is here. The best teams. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”