Johnny Sauter won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ season-opener at Daytona, and with the way his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota’s been performing — including a second-place finish in Saturday’s Smith’s 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — Sauter’s more than ready for another superspeedway.
The Truck Series’ next race is 18 days away, on Oct. 19 at Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway, the longest oval track the series visits.
“Winning Daytona was the perfect way to start the season and with the way my Toyota Tundras and team have been working I think we can do the same at Talladega,” Sauter said. “Dennis (Connor, crew chief) and the guys have put our Daytona truck back together and I can’t wait to get it back on track.”
His team’s latest performance, which included crisp pit stops and a late charge that almost resulted in their third win of the season, obviously has Sauter ready to go.
“It was just kind of an up-and-down night — a crazy race, really,” Sauter said of Las Vegas. “Pit strategies were kind of different, with guys getting cycled back and forth through the field, so it had to be exciting to watch.
“One time we would get up to the top-five and the next thing you know we come and take four tires and we were back in 15th — but some guys took two and some just took fuel and that’s just what happens. But it seemed like that happened two or three times (Saturday) night.”
Unlike their last race at Chicagoland, where Sauter had raced into the top 10 and was leading his ThorSport Racing teammate and Truck Series points leader Matt Crafton before he was set back into the field by a slow pit stop, at Las Vegas Sauter had an all-ThorSport crew with no hired-for-the-race outsiders and they gained spots or held their own all night.
“It was a good night for our Carolina Nut/Curb Records Toyota,” Sauter said. “The guys in the pits did a great job and that’s something we’ve been working on pretty hard lately, so it’s nice to see their effort pay off.
“Everybody at ThorSport Racing is doing a great job and a second-place finish is just what we needed right now. All night long I thought that we had a truck, if we could ever get it up front in the clean air, that we would have been tough to beat. But all-in-all it was a solid night and to pass as many trucks as we did and get a second-place finish — I’ll take it.”
Sauter and Connor’s short-term goal remains to get back into the top five in the series standings, and Las Vegas was a step in the right direction. Sauter picked up seven points on Crafton to move to within 103 points of the lead with five races remaining, but Sauter’s seventh top-five finish in 17 races this season drew him to within 26 points of fifth.
Las Vegas, where the team once again used Sauter’s current favorite truck for the fourth time in the last five races — three of them top-five finishes — is proof it’s a reasonable goal.
“This is a truck that we’ve ran the last three weeks in a row now,” Sauter said of the truck that ran at Bristol in August, where it finished fourth and then at Iowa, Chicagoland and Vegas after the Canadian Tire road race. “It’s got two top-fives (Iowa and Vegas) and a top-10 (Chicagoland) so it’s pretty good.”
That wasn’t apparent in practice, where Sauter struggled to find speed. He was 20th of 25 trucks that ran in the morning practice and 18th of the 27 trucks that ran in Happy Hour — though once again Sauter found consistency in his truck, which has paid off in the most recent races.
Sauter qualified only 16th, but took less than 30 laps to race into the top 10. The off-sequence pit cycles he described knocked him back to the mid-teens twice before he made his last stop, for four tires and fuel with about 50 laps to go.
Six of the race’s nine cautions were created by incidents in Turn 4, and Sauter offered a possible explanation that also gave some insight into his own truck’s night.
“At the beginning of the race the sun was on the racetrack in Turns 3 and 4 and it was really hard to see coming off of 4,” Sauter said. “There were times in Turn 4 where I’d get really loose, but it was weird. Typically what you fight in one corner you fight in the other, but I was a little bit tight in (Turns) 1 and 2 and in 3 and 4 I was loose, especially before that last restart when I was running fifth.
“I had radioed-in and told the guys I was absolutely sideways in 3 and 4. I did all the things I needed to do to try to build some air pressure in our truck to make it tight for the end, but I was loose down there and I’m sure a lot of people were feeling the same thing.”
It nearly all fell right for Sauter when the final caution flew when Jennifer Jo Cobb’s truck hit the wall in Turn 2, setting up a green-white-checker finish.
“We were really good on restarts all night, but that last one was really crazy,” Sauter said. “It looked like Ron (Hornaday, the leader) spun the tires and lost momentum, everything fanned-out and I was like, ‘Hey, there’s a hole up there in the middle and I’m gonna try it.’
“I jumped in that and got good momentum to clear Ron, then I got on the outside of (third-place finisher) Miguel (Paludo) and I was able to clear him going down the backstretch. Then I just run out of time to make a run at Timothy (Peters, race winner).”
LVMS kicked-off the race using a unique format for driver introductions, busing the drivers outside the track, from where they walked down through the grandstands, interacting with some of the estimated 30,000 fans that were on-hand before the drivers got into their race trucks for the start.
“It would’ve been the perfect time to go and rob a bank,” Sauter said after the race, laughing. “I slapped so many hands coming down through there, that my fingerprints wouldn’t have possibly been right — but it was cool.”