Johnny Sauter came to Martinsville Speedway for Saturday’s Kroger 200 with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota being the most recent NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winner on the unique .526-mile oval, so nothing less than another win would satisfy him.
That was exactly what occurred in the season’s 19th race, as Sauter qualified on the outside of the front row, took a bonus point for leading nine laps and ran in the top 10 for virtually all of the race — finally finishing eighth, his 12th top-10 finish, which is second-best in the series to his ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton’s 17 top 10s.
That enabled Sauter to grab fifth in the championship standings with only three races left.
But as he stood in the garage next to his battered pink-trimmed black Tundra, none of those “big picture” items mattered for the guy who’s won three times this season — the most of any Truck Series regular — and who felt like he’d seen another great chance to win slip away.
“I don’t big-picture race — we were here to win,” Sauter said of the circumstances — specifically being stuck on the outside on a couple late-race restarts — that knocked him back at the end. “Being stuck on the outside was really tough. You really had to be in the top-three and out ahead of all that mess to be able to race or do anything.
“If you got stuck back in the pack, guys weren’t really driving very well or very smart.”
Sauter found himself in the top-three for the first third of the race, as he got the jump on pole-winning Sprint Cup regular Denny Hamlin — who won this race in 2012 by knocking Crafton out of his way late in the going — to lead the first nine laps.
Eventual race-winner Darrell Wallace Jr. grabbed the lead from Sauter on the 10th lap and the two Truck Series regulars and Hamlin distanced themselves from the rest of the field and swapped positions among themselves until the race’s second caution flag flew, at lap 70.
Sauter’s crew executed a four tires and fuel stop and after dealing with traffic getting off Martinsville’s cramped pit road, Sauter restarted in fifth. Sauter quickly dispatched Crafton’s chief championship rival coming into the race, Ty Dillon and raced in the top-five until a restart at lap 97, when Ron Hornaday moved up the racetrack and hit Sauter’s truck’s left-front corner and nose, causing damage that was repaired on a pit stop during the next caution, which came out on lap 100 for debris.
After pitting to repair the damage Sauter restarted in 18th and for the next 40 laps Sauter grimly raced to get back into the top 10, which he did with 50 laps to go, restarting ninth after the seventh of 10 cautions.
There were three cautions in the last 50 laps of the race. At lap 176 Sauter restarted sixth, but that meant he was on the unfavorable outside line and he quickly fell back to eighth. At lap 185 Sauter restarted eighth — again on the outside — but when the final caution flew at lap 189, Sauter dodged a melee that swept up three trucks running ahead of him: including those of Crafton, Dillon and Kevin Harvick.
At that caution Sauter’s team felt they were wronged by NASCAR’s read of its scoring loops — “The guys thought we were ahead of Brendan (Gaughan) when that caution came out but that’s not where we started,” Sauter said of the call that once again had him on the outside, with Gaughan taking advantage of his better starting position to run to second at the finish. Sauter struggled into eighth.
Sauter’s team, led by crew chief Dennis Connor, scored its fifth consecutive top-10 finish and with that, Sauter leap-frogged fifth-place Miguel Paludo in the points and now has a 10-point advantage over Paludo and rookie Ryan Blaney, who are tied for sixth.
Sauter actually lopped 10 points off Crafton’s advantage, which is now 82 points to fifth. Crafton lost a few points to defending Truck Series champion James Buescher, who is now 51 points behind Crafton after jumping over Dillon in the standings.
The best news for Sauter is the series’ next race is at Texas Motor Speedway, the fast, bumpy 1.5-mile oval where Sauter swept both 2012 races.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to go next than Texas,” Sauter said. “We’ll go on to Texas and we expect to be right in the middle of the hunt, there. I love that place, we’ve got a really good truck ready to go and I can’t wait for Friday night.”