Johnny Sauter Friday fought back for a 10th-place finish with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota at Chicagoland Speedway in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ EnjoyIllinois.com 225.
It remains the goal of Sauter’s crew chief Dennis Connor to have a well-tuned, in-house pit crew to facilitate a run back into the top five in the standings in the season’s last six races, but after Friday night the goal remains on the horizon.
Connor, who’s been with ThorSport Racing working with Sauter’s team for about a month, went to the 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval for the 16th Truck Series event of the year within 30 points of fifth in the standings and, more important to the season’s big picture, with virtually the same setup as championship-leading teammate Matt Crafton had on his No. 88 Serta / Menards Toyota.
“That was a big step for us to enable our two teams to help each other more,” Connor said. “And I think the benefit of that showed in the way we both practiced.”
In Friday morning’s first practice, Sauter was 12th and Crafton, 14th. But in Happy Hour at mid-day, they both picked-up considerably, with Crafton fourth and Sauter, fifth and easily within striking distance of the leaders.
The pair was separated a bit in qualifying, where Crafton was eighth-best and Sauter, 14th. When the race got under way, however, both ThorSport Tundras were loose and they ultimately fell into the depths of the top 20 as a result — with Sauter dropping as low as 22nd at one point.
At the time of his first pit stop Sauter was in the mid-teens and dropped a few spots. But Connor adjusted the truck to the point that Sauter, who started a couple positions behind Crafton, who was working overtime to get his truck handling better, shot by his teammate and led him toward the top 10.
With about 50 laps remaining Sauter had raced up to ninth with Crafton right behind him, when a yellow flag flew, bringing all the lead trucks to pit road. The difference in the ThorSport crews glared as Crafton picked up two spots on pit road, which put him in position to race forward to a fourth-place finish.
With ThorSport’s only other complete in-house pit crew in Salem, Ind., for a race with ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards leader Frank Kimmel; Connor said on Sauter’s second stop one of their hired over-the-wall crewmen screwed up even worse than on the first stop — and a 17th-place restart position was Sauter’s penalty.
“We’ll keep working on it and I know our guys will continue to improve and we’ll get it right,” Sauter said. “No one on this team is even thinking of giving up, and we’ll go to (Las) Vegas and prove that in a couple weeks.”
Over the next 33 laps after the final restart, Sauter proved how committed he was, and his truck’s potential as he raced back to the top 10 with 10 laps remaining. But that was as far forward as he was able to get.
“We made progress with our Carolina Nut / Curb Records Tundra and that’s all you can ask for,” Sauter said. “We had to run hard to get back to where we finished and we’ll just keep working to make sure we’re not in that position again.”
With his gallant chase back to the top 10, Sauter improved to within 28 points of the top five, which remains his team’s primary goal before setting sights on Crafton, who’s now 110 points ahead of Sauter.
The Truck Series’ next race is the Smith’s 350 on Sept. 28 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.