Johnny Sauter and his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota crew finally got a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finish that they deserved with Sauter’s fourth-place run Wednesday night in the UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Sauter finally broke a nine-race skein in which he hadn’t scored a top-five finish, after opening the 2013 season with ThorSport Racing by posting four consecutive top fives, including winning the first two races.
“Most people don’t think of Bristol as being a place where you can come and turn things around, but I’m not surprised to be here with a truck that’s in one piece,” Sauter said on pit road, chuckling. “I just love Bristol, because it’s good short-track racing and I just can’t get enough of that stuff.”
Sauter’s spectacular closing run, in which he made up seven spots on two restarts in the last 12 laps, enabled him to move back into ninth place in the standings, 89 points behind championship leader and ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton.
“I’m really proud of everybody at ThorSport — all the guys on this Carolina Nut / Curb Records Toyota,” Sauter said. “This is what we needed. We’ve had four horrible weeks — not that we weren’t running good, we just got wrecked in unfortunate deals when we had trucks that I felt could get top fives and last week (at Michigan) could’ve even won the race.
“To get a top-five, hopefully this turns the corner for these guys and old truck 23 (team designation for the chassis used at Bristol). She did it again for me.”
It wasn’t looking that way at the beginning of practice, where Sauter was 12th in the first session and 19th in Happy Hour. A pre-qualifying adjustment cause the truck’s front “splitter” to hit the racetrack — resulting in a 21st starting position.
“We got the splitter too low there in qualifying and I don’t know why,” Sauter said. “We fired up in first practice and were decent and then all of a sudden the splitter started hitting and we were the same in qualifying.”
The adverse handling condition was enough of a concern that crew chief Dennis Connor and Sauter decided to change it in impound, which resulted in Sauter being one of three trucks that had to drop to the back of the field for the initial start.
It was a preview of what happened a couple times to Sauter, as he lost spots on pit road thanks to some “hired-hand” crewmen.
“We came from the back and had some trouble in the pits and came from the back again,” Sauter said. “I was really digging on that long green-flag run and got up to sixth or seventh. Then we had some more trouble in the pits but I got a good restart there (with 12 laps left). Like I said, just proud of the guys.”
The key restart wasn’t that easy to explain, Sauter said.
“It’s just a lot of action and reaction — I just saw people stacking-up, people spinning their tires and trying to spin out and I just said ‘we’re not lifting, we’re going,'” he said, laughing. “There are just so many things going on, but this is short-track racing — it’s great and a lot of fun. I know a lot of people have complained about this track configuration, but as a competitor I love it, because it gives you options of running all over the place.
“Bristol is one of my favorites — it always has been — and another top-five is really good. Bristol’s been a good racetrack for me — especially in the trucks — and this new configuration is all about racing, at least I think so because it gives you options to move around.”
Connor, who said getting a full-time pit crew in-house so the entire squad could regularly practice was just one priority of his. And he chuckled on Bristol’s pit road as he looked at Sauter’s No, 98 Tundra, which was immaculate except for a minor scuff on the right-front fender.
“It figures that the last couple of races that I’ve been (with ThorSport) the trucks had excellent bodies on them — you could take them anywhere that you wanted to go race,” said Connor, who joined the team, as an observer, at Pocono in July. “And they both ended up all torn to hell — completely destroyed.
“Now this truck, the body’s not quite in the configuration we want — it’s ready for a new body — so it figures it would come out of (Bristol) without a scratch on it. But it’s not a total loss because at least now we have a good, solid backup truck, which we didn’t have before.”
The series now heads to the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course in Bowmanville, Ontario. The race on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend will be the first NCWTS road race in 13 years, since the series last raced at Watkins Glen in 2000