If there ever was a racetrack whose results didn’t reflect a driver’s performance, it would be Michigan International Speedway, when it comes to Johnny Sauter’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history at the two-mile oval in Michigan’s Irish Hills.
Sauter and his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota’s new crew chief Dennis Connor, who’s a three-time Truck Series champion with the veteran Jack Sprague, have every reason to believe a beguiling four-race string of missteps will end in Saturday’s Michigan National Guard 200.
“Michigan’s just really been a bad-luck racetrack for us,” Sauter said. “Last year we ran second the whole race, but at the end of the race we had to make a green-flag pit stop for fuel — everybody from sixth on back didn’t and they all finished the race.
“So we ran second all day long and we had nothing to show for it. In 2011 we were running fifth and I just spun out on my own. In 2010 we did run like (crap) and in 2009, we were running sixth coming to the white flag and we blew a left-rear tire.”
What that equals, in those four starts, is an average start of eighth — including three sixth-place qualifying efforts — and an average finish of 13.5. With all his miserable luck, Sauter’s still finished between 11th and 16th in those four races, with the 11th coming in last year’s fuel mileage derby on MIS’s new pavement.
“Michigan’s been a place where we’ve had zero results, and that’s why it’s not one of my favorite racetracks,” Sauter said, shaking his head. “I don’t really mind the racetrack — I feel good about it and I feel good about the truck we’re taking — and I feel like it’s a racetrack that we should go and run well at…
“But for whatever reason — I don’t know what the heck it is — but you can run as good as you want to and at the end of the day something seems to always go wrong for me at Michigan and so that obviously leaves a bad taste in my mouth for it, even though I don’t have a bit of a problem driving there.”
But Sauter’s inadvertently on a roll of sorts. One of his closest competitors in the standings, Red Horse Racing’s Timothy Peters, incurred a point deduction for a technical violation after the last race, at Pocono, and Sauter moved up from 10th to ninth in the standings — though he’s still 84 points behind his championship-leading teammate at ThorSport Racing, Matt Crafton.
And Sauter comes to Michigan with Connor, who has six Truck Series victories on high-speed intermediate tracks, including two at Fontana, Calif. — a track similar to Michigan — with Sprague.
“For me it’s simple,” Sauter said. “I have to give (Connor) the right feedback about how the truck’s handling and he has to be able to adjust accordingly. The path to get to where we need to be will be different than it has been — just like it is with every crew chief and every driver– but we’ve just got to try to get Dennis the best feedback I can and let him run with it.”
Finally, Sauter agreed with Crafton on one thing about Michigan, and that’s what it takes to succeed there, even though Crafton’s finishing average, 17.9, is worse than Sauter’s as they both seek the ultimate prize.
“For sure, you need to run wide-open as much as you can at Michigan,” Sauter said. “Right off the (transporter) you’re going to have to be able to put it to the floor and never think twice about lifting (off the accelerator). If you have to lift, at any point during that first practice, your truck’s not good enough.
“It might be a different story in the second practice, in the afternoon when there might be a little bit of heat in the racetrack, but otherwise, Michigan is the kind of racetrack that emphasizes everything — the engine, handling and the aero (dynamic) package — because if you have to lift, even a little bit, out of the throttle, it shows up on lap times like you can’t believe by the time you’ve gone two miles.”
Sauter’s also enthused about getting into a Sprint Cup car at an official event for the first time since the spring of 2011, at Kansas Speedway. Sauter’s intrigued about trying a “Gen6” Cup car — the No. 98 fielded by Phil Parsons Racing and also supported by his Truck Series co-owner Mike Curb — in conjunction with the season’s 12th Truck race.
“This new car looks like it’s fun to drive and they’ve been extremely fast everywhere they’ve gone so far this season,” Sauter said. “So I’m just looking forward to sitting behind the wheel of one. It’s been a year or two since I’ve driven a Cup car and they just have so much horsepower and they’re so much fun to drive that I’m excited about doing it.
“It’s going to be hard to get into the race, but all I can do is drive as hard as I possibly can, cross my fingers and hope they’ve got it handling good and that I can give the right feedback and do a good job for them. They’ve proven that their stuff is good and they’ve run good all year, qualifying 25th to 35th, which to some people doesn’t seem like anything but to me, (Sprint Cup) is a tough nut to crack so I hope I can keep up the trend of what they’ve been doing.”
On Friday there are two Truck Series practice sessions, from 10:30-11:50 a.m. ET and 2-3:20 p.m. The final practice will be telecast live on the SPEED Channel. Sprint Cup practice is from 12-1:30 p.m., with qualifying starting at 3:40 p.m., with both sessions live on SPEED.
On Saturday, Coors Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled for 9:35 a.m. ET. It will be the inaugural NCWTS show on FOX Sports 1, which replaces SPEED that day. If Sauter makes the Cup race, there are two Saturday practices, from 8:30-9:25 a.m. and 11-11:55 a.m., with the final Cup practice live on FOX Sports 1.
Saturday’s 100-lap, 200-mile Michigan National Guard 200 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET, preceded at 12 p.m. by The Setup pre-race show. MRN Radio’s live broadcast also begins at 12 with live timing & scoring on NASCAR.com. The Cup race is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, with live coverage on ESPN and MRN Radio with live timing & scoring on NASCAR.com.