Richie Crampton is a self-described realist, and because of that he’s maybe the most thankful driver on the Mello Yello tour. Crampton worked at Don Schumacher racing briefly but made his name at Morgan Lucas Racing [MLR}, first as diligent clutch specialist then driver. He came to Kalitta Motorsports after MLR abandoned the driving side of business, stepping in after Troy Coughlin Jr.’s late-season decision to step from the SealMaster Dragster that once had JR Todd at the wheel.

After MLR parked his dragster and Lucas’, Crampton admittedly was in limbo. He said he had no guarantee he ever would drive a Top Fuel dragster again.

“I think I’m more realistic than anyone out here on just how just hard it is to get a ride with a top-level team like this. I was obviously very fortunate when I was selected to drive for the previous team, but to get the phone call to come here was something I hoped to happen, but in all reality, I didn’t know if it ever would,” Crampton said. “Everyone in the world wants to drive one of these cars, and I understand it. There are a lot of up-and-coming sportsman racers that deserve a shot also, and I get that, too. So for me, it’s just about appreciating what I have here and hope to never be without a ride again.

“It’s pretty cool to have the opportunities I have in front of me right now. Driving for a top-level operation like Connie has here is pretty big,” the seven-time winner said. “Just to drive with all of these great drivers that I’ve looked up to as my teammates, I know I’m going to learn a ton from them. Even though Shawn and JR have migrated over to Funny Cars, I still bounce things off of them. Being teammates with Doug [Kalitta], who has won so many races, just being able to talk to him throughout the year . . .  It’s very exciting for me.  It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m back out here with a top-level team and racing again – it’s great.”

Crampton said his goal for 2018 is no different than every other racer’s: “In a nutshell, just win.” But he said his supreme goal is personal: “First and foremost, I want to stand in the winners circle with Connie Kalitta. That would mean a huge amount to me. We want to win rounds and win a lot of races for Toyota, DHL, Kalitta Air, and all of our sponsors who have given me this great opportunity.”

Rob Flynn, his crew chief with the Kalitta Air/Toyota Dragster, said he’s just starting to work with Crampton but indicated he thinks he can help deliver Crampton’s wish.

“We’ve just been around each other a little bit so far, but I think it’s going to work out real well,” Flynn said. “It was good to have him in the fold at the end of last year and learn how things get done here. So he’s not an outsider coming in now.  I think he feels at home. I’m looking forward to Richie driving our car this year. Last year, Shawn did an awesome job with us and Richie did a nice job running in the other car. Having him in our car, I believe Kalitta Motorsports has one of the best driver line-ups out there.”

Flynn said, “We just hit our stride at that point in the Countdown. Hopefully, we can hit the ground running. We haven’t changed a lot, but we are testing some new things.”

For Crampton, “the big difference at this point is I get to contend all 24 events and try to make a run at the Countdown,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic than coming in for Indy, past the midway point of the year. I’m pretty excited for the opportunity to start fresh when everyone runs at the same level playing field as far as the points are concerned and try to win some races this year.”

This chance to test at Phoenix is a blessing.

“Every race we race we went to last year, we just showed up and would make some runs,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with what we did at a couple of the races. For me, getting amongst this operation last year was a good stepping stone for this year.  It’s huge for me to come here and just test. Everyone here at the Kalitta Air Toyota team, they’re working at giving me a really good hot rod – which I know they will. I’m just trying to knock some rust off and get back into my rhythm. So we’ll make a handful of runs here and be looking good for Pomona.”