Johnny Sauter led the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings for 10 weeks in 2011 before finishing second to Austin Dillon, so more than anyone at ThorSport Racing Sauter knows the value of momentum.
It’s why the Wisconsin native is stoked to arrive at Martinsville Speedway for Saturday’s Kroger 250 with the series’ points lead — by six over multiple champion Ron Hornaday Jr. — six weeks after Sauter won the Daytona season opener in ThorSport’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota.
The fact Sauter won this race in 2011, bumping Sprint Cup superstar Kyle Busch out of the way in the process to do it, only emphasizes what NASCAR’s smallest track can mean for Sauter’s season.
“Martinsville is a place that we’ve won before and ultimately a place we need to go and capitalize,” Sauter said. “We need to put our best effort forth and try to not only win the race but hopefully extend the points lead.
“Like any race, a lot of things have to go right to succeed — pit strategy and taking care of the truck all day and staying out of trouble — so Martinsville is a tough one to win at. Like I said, we’ve done it before and we typically run in the top five every time we’re there — until something happens. I don’t see any reason why we can’t go there and pick up where we left off in prior races.”
Sauter has run well at Martinsville, but with the exception of 2011, when he won in the spring and finished fourth in the 50-laps-shorter Kroger 200, his results haven’t been scintillating. But the team had a couple days of short track testing last week and Sauter feels like his squad is ready for Friday afternoon’s qualifying session, for starters.
“I think you can make a case for anything but ultimately when you qualify up front it makes life a lot easier,” Sauter said. “The year we won we sat on the pole and ended up leading the most laps and just kinda stayed out of trouble all day and ran our own race and won.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work that good and it’s not that easy, so I think Martinsville is one of those places you can have strategies, but you can start last and still win. Everybody wants to start up front, but sometimes if you’re not that good qualifying, you’re not eliminated by any means.”
To come to the front Saturday, Sauter knows he can depend on crew chief Joe Shear Jr. and his men.
“It’s kind of a tricky place,” Sauter said. “And with the spring race 50 laps longer than the fall race, it kind of forces your hand to pit twice, if you want to have anything left at the end.”
And that brings to mind the most critical aspect of every race — but even moreso at a short track. That’s the end-game.
“I think you want to be leading, obviously, with 50 laps to go, like you do anywhere,” Sauter said. “But I think with 50-to-go in a place like Martinsville, depending on what kind of day you’re having, you’ll want to have better tires than everybody in front of you and you want to have equal tires to the guys behind you so you can keep them behind you.
“That’s the best you can ask for if you’re not having a great day. Having equal tires and better tires than the guys in front of you so you can go try to pick off as many as you can by the end of the race is critical.”
The cliché goes, “to finish first, first you must finish,” and Martinsville epitomizes that. Sauter’s been on the losing end of that equation more than once, but his two top-five finishes in 2011 prove he can get it done.
“I think staying out of trouble is the key,” Sauter said. “A driver can self-inflict trouble with brake problems or whatever, so I think I’ve learned that 200 or 250 laps at Martinsville is a lot longer than people think.
“You think, ‘OK, it’s a half-mile, so a 131.5-mile race,’ but you have a lot more time to get where you need to go than you think. And that’s what I was guilty of the first few years when I went there, was just over-abusing my stuff and not having anything left at the end of the race — and then getting run-over.
“So I think you’ve got to be patient, but I also think that you have to be aggressive on restarts and things like that, to try to get as many positions as you can without taking big risks. It’s a lot of give and take, like it is at a lot of racetracks, but one of the biggest keys you can have at Martinsville is a good-handling truck.
“That’s ultimately what separates the men from the boys, is whoever’s got the best handling package and has the best turning ability with forward traction. That’s what wins Martinsville.”
Getting along with your competitors certainly doesn’t hurt — but as Sauter found out in 2011 when he beat Busch, and Sauter’s ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton found out last fall when Denny Hamlin shoved him aside and went on to win — full-contact racing can spell the difference between winning, and finishing back in the pack, not only in the end but at any point in the race.
“I think every driver always says, ‘I’ll never forget,’ especially in the heat of the moment,” Sauter said. “But for me, I’m focused on that race and I can’t remember what happened yesterday. I definitely think you want to have clean relationships with other competitors for sure, because if it comes down to the end and they feel like they can use you up, they’re going to.
“But I feel like I’ve raced everybody for the most part pretty clean and heck, if anything I’m the guy that should be using some people up. But I just don’t go there. I work hard and practice and hopefully keep them all in the rearview mirror all day long and not have to worry about it.”
The Kroger 250 is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. ET start on Saturday. Live television coverage is on SPEED Channel, beginning with the “Set-up” pre-race show at 1 p.m. and MRN Radio has the live radio broadcast.