Johnny Sauter’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ championship hopes took a serious lick Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, by way of a 28th-place Did Not Finish caused by a seemingly deliberate wreck.
Sauter, who had rebounded to fifth place with 31 laps to go after nearly going a lap down due to a lengthy pit stop to open the No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota’s hood to make a severe chassis adjustment, was knocked out of the race on the 115th lap when defending series champion James Buescher ran into the back of Sauter’s truck exiting Turn 4 and knocked it into the outside wall.
Sauter crossed the start/finish line, then limped the truck through the quarter-mile short track on Charlotte’s frontstretch and directly into the garage area to retire with extensive damage.
The poor finish broke a string of four consecutive top-five finishes — including winning the first two races of the season — by Sauter and his team. Even worse, it dropped him from a tie for second in the standings, 13 points behind ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton, to sixth, 37 points behind.
Sauter had practiced fairly well, turning 75 laps in the three sessions spread across Thursday and Friday. But in qualifying he was the middle of three ThorSport Toyotas, lining up two spots, in 16th, behind Crafton, who was 14th. They were well ahead of teammate Todd Bodine, who started 32nd.
Sauter actually started 15th when rookie German Quiroga, who qualified 10th, had to drop to the rear of the field on the pace laps, for the start. But Sauter was unable to advance very far before he began dropping back before he made a pit stop under the second yellow, at lap 28, when his crew, led by a pair of interim crew chiefs, 2013 truck chief Jesse Saunders and Dan LeMasters, who had served as Sauter’s truck chief for Sauter’s first four years with ThorSport, made their major front-end adjustment.
Sauter fell back to 28th for the restart at lap 30, but it appeared to make his truck much better. Sauter drove back into the top 10 in less than 40 laps, and remained there until a restart at lap 109, with 25 laps remaining.
Sauter was fifth under that yellow flag but on the restart the field shuffled-up and Sauter got caught in the middle of a three-wide scrum in which he made contact with Dakoda Armstrong’s truck on his right and Darrell Wallace Jr.’s truck on his left. Armstrong then appeared to move down onto Sauter’s truck, which caused it to lose control and pinch into Buescher’s truck, which was on the outside in the next row.
Less than five laps later, Buescher drove into the back of Sauter and ended his race. Sauter, when he was in fifth, was in a position to retake the championship lead he’d lost to Crafton, who was then running 18th. Buescher went on to finish sixth and is unofficially fifth in the standings, six points ahead of Sauter.
The Truck Series is now off for 12 days until it resumes at Dover International Speedway, with practice on Thursday, May 30.