Johnny Sauter had a record-tying start to the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship but he wasn’t disappointed to kick off 2014 with a third-place finish in his No. 98 Nextant Aerospace / Curb Records Toyota Tundra Friday night in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
Sauter, who won three Truck Series races a year ago and started last season with victories at Daytona and Martinsville Speedway, had a solid night with his ThorSport Racing team led by new crew chief Gene Wachtel.
Sauter started the race in ninth and hung around the top 10 all night before he elected to stay allied with eventual race winner Kyle Busch — who made Daytona history by becoming the first driver to win races in four different series at “The World Center of Racing.” Sauter finished third on account behind Busch and Red Horse Racing series regular Timothy Peters, who created a one-two-three finish for Toyota.
“Finishing Daytona is a good thing,” Sauter said. “Obviously you want to win, but this is one of those racetracks that the momentum of the season can kind of start out good and start out bad. We’ll take a third-place finish.
“You know, it’s funny because in practice nobody was really drafting so we really didn’t know what to expect. When you come to Daytona obviously you want to win and we were fortunate enough to do it here a year ago. More importantly you want to finish the race and I’m just proud of everybody at ThorSport — great night and I think all three trucks stayed in one piece so that’s all you can ask for.”
Sauter was good enough in practice that he lined up ninth after the Truck Series’ first-ever group qualifying session was cancelled earlier Friday by rain. Sauter was never scored outside the top 10 and he was inside the top five before 30 of 100 laps were run.
“I never would have believed the race was like it was — track position was everything,” Sauter said. “We’d get double file (and) the only truck I saw all night long that could make hay was the 17 (Peters).”
The final restart came with 11 laps to go and, with Sauter in fifth resulted in frantic, side-by-side fender-slamming racing that ended with Busch making a pell-mell dash to the outside, and the win coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap.
“In hindsight, maybe I should have jumped up in front of (Peters), made him push me to the front,” Sauter said. “I didn’t feel I was in a position to do that. I committed to the 51 (Busch) all night long.
“We had solid pit stops on our truck.The guys did a good job in the pits. We did our best to maintain track position. We were in a position there at the end. I pushed Kyle down the backstretch because I knew that was my only chance to clear the 32 (fourth-place Ryan Truex) and ultimately have a run on Kyle coming up off of (Turn) 4.
“He got too far away from me. I just didn’t get away from the 32 quick enough. It bogged my momentum. I was a sitting duck when Kyle latched onto the 17. I just elected to try to stay in a straight line there and make sure I didn’t make a mistake, get turned or anything like that.”
For a driver who wants to do nothing but win, Sauter took a cogent, big-picture view.
“(Busch) was so far away from me, I don’t think it really mattered,” Sauter said. “Third, I think, was the best we were going to do (Friday) night. This is eight straight (Daytona) wins for Toyota and they took the top three spots (Friday) night, so this is good. Nowhere I could really go.”
Sauter felt he had a good handle on his end-game strategy after watching the race unfold, particularly after watching his ThorSport teammates Matt Crafton and Jeb Burton make attempts to run the high line.
“I told my spotter to tell Kyle that I was committed to him til the end,” Sauter said. “I had seen Timothy do what he did there earlier in the night, he pulled the outside line. He was pretty much the only guy that could do that.
“At one point Crafton tried to run like heck out there, wasn’t able to make it work. I saw Jeb Burton pull up there, didn’t really have any success. I was afraid if I went out there, I’d bog (Busch) down.
“I was committed to Kyle. I felt if we could get separation, not be double-file, I could have lagged back off of Kyle and had a run on him to the finish. You can plan all you want; it just never works out that way.”
The weekend, and the race, was just what the doctor ordered for Wachtel, who formerly worked with Sauter at ThorSport as a GM engineer. It was his first race as a crew chief.
“It was a good night,” Wachtel said. “We had some speed, but not quite enough to pull out and do what we needed to do, to win. But it was good to get my first race out of the way — knock some of the nerves out — and Johnny and our spotter, Tab Boyd did a good job.
“The boys did a good job on pit road and it was a good night, overall, to come out of here in one piece with something to take home and work on, for Talladega (superspeedway race in the fall).”
Because Busch earns points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Sauter will head to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway next month, in five weeks, just two points behind Peters.