Johnny Sauter feels like last year’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race that he and his ThorSport Racing team let get away in 2012.
So Friday night, the driver of ThorSport’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota wants to set that record straight.
“I’m always optimistic — any track we go to — and I felt like we had the truck to beat at Charlotte last year,” Sauter said. “We were running second and running the leader down by two-tenths (of a second) a lap and the fuel pump died. So that was kind of a bummer.”
Sauter’s record at Charlotte is a classic example of the numbers not reflecting how well he’s competed. His best finish in four starts came in 2011 — the year he narrowly lost the Truck Series’ championship to Austin Dillon — when he started seventh, finished sixth and led the only nine laps he’s led in a truck at Charlotte.
“We’ve run well at Charlotte, even though I guess for me and the team it’s not been one of our best racetracks, as far as the numbers go,” Sauter said. “But I’m always optimistic, like I said. We’re going around in circles for a living — how much more do you need?”
Sauter and the series have been off since April 20 — nearly four weeks ago — when he scored his fourth top-five finish of the season at Kansas Speedway, the only Truck Series competitor to achieve that feat this season. That has Sauter sitting 13 points behind ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton’s team, tied for second in the standings with rookie Jeb Burton.
That’s the second time in its 18-year history ThorSport’s held the top two spots in the standings, which occurred for the first time 45 races ago, when Crafton and Sauter were one-two following the May 2011 Dover race.
“I’ve been racing in the Truck Series long enough that you kind of get used to the breaks in the schedule, but a few years ago it used to drive me insane,” Sauter said this week. “But it’s all good and I’m kind of glad to have a little bit of time in between events. But I’m ready to go at Charlotte.”
In light of that, Sauter appreciated NASCAR selecting Charlotte as the site of one of two open practice days scheduled in conjunction with 2013 race weekends. Thirty-eight Truck Series teams opened the Charlotte weekend Thursday.
“The test was good, because I don’t think you’ll ever find a competitor that doesn’t want extra track time,” Sauter said of the 75 laps he turned in practice. “We had a chance to try some different stuff that you typically don’t get to try on a given race weekend, because there’s not a lot of practice time.”
But one thing Sauter won’t waste too much time doing is stressing over the points.
“It’s way too early to even be thinking about the championship,” said Sauter, who won the first two races of the season. “Even when we had the point lead, that’s cool when you get it, but there’s such a long way to go — 18 races — so I can tell you that I don’t race any differently in light of the points.
“At this point, I don’t think your mentality changes at all. If we were 14 races into the season instead of four that might change a little, but right now, even though we’ve come out of the gate pretty good there are probably some teams that haven’t hit their stride yet, and we have to look out for them every race we go to. We’ve been on both sides of that and I know how fast things can get turned upside-down so four races in is just too early to be thinking about it.
“Maintaining a high level of performance is always a challenge. You rarely see a guy dominate from the beginning to the end of the year. You’ll see guys get on a hot streak, but rarely do they do it all year long. We’ve just got to keep racing hard, and it’s no different for us than it is for anybody else. You’ve just got to go out and be smart and make good choices on the racetrack and ultimately try to get the best finish that you can. But every race carries the same points and every race is important.”
Charlotte’s especially important to most of the teams in the series due to the surrounding area’s status as the sport’s hub. Sauter, a long-time Charlotte-area resident, acknowledges that even though he declares “my heart’s still in Wisconsin and always will be.”
“I think everybody looks at Charlotte as one of those events that it would be really cool to come out and do really well in, because for most of these teams it’s their home base and they have a lot of support,” Sauter said. “For ThorSport, being based in Ohio it’s great to see the support that Matt and Todd (Bodine, No. 13 Mattei Toyota driver) and I get from the fans, no matter where we go.”
Sauter’s scheduled to go out 27th in the 38-truck qualifying session that begins at 4 p.m. ET Friday, with live coverage on the SPEED Channel.
The North Carolina Education Lottery 200, the season’s fifth race, is 134 laps and 201 miles and scheduled for an 8 p.m. start, with live television on SPEED, beginning with “The Set-Up” pre-race show at 7:30. MRN Radio has live radio coverage, also beginning at 7:30.