Johnny Sauter’s a former winner at Chicagoland Speedway, the fast 1.5-mile venue that kicks off the stretch run of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season in Friday night’s EnjoyIllinois.com 225.
That’s one fact, coupled with the reality that Sauter’s won at five of the last seven venues that the Truck Series competes at, that gives the Wisconsin native a lot of optimism that he can race his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota back into the top five in the series’ standings.
Sauter won a race at Chicagoland in what’s now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, in 2002. In Truck races he won his first series race at Las Vegas in 2009, at Martinsville in 2011 and earlier this season, he swept both Texas races in 2012 and he won at Homestead in 2011 — when he led the most laps but lost the championship by six points when the race was prematurely called due to rain.
But Sauter’s first step is Friday night at Chicagoland.
“Chicagoland’s a tough place to get ahold of, but I did win my first race in the Busch Series there, and I liked the track from the first time I got on it,” Sauter said. “Things have been touch-and-go for us with the trucks at Chicago — like last season (lap-down 22nd-place finish) — but we’ve been quick there in the past and I love the way our stuff usually performs on the intermediate speedways.”
Sauter and crew chief Dennis Connor are being true to Sauter’s word that the truck that they used at Iowa Speedway last weekend — which had to start at the back due to a post-qualifying adjustment but which raced back to fourth at the finish — would become their workhorse.
The black-and-blue Tundra, carrying the color scheme of Carolina Nut’s sea salt & pepper roasted peanuts, was out of the body shop Tuesday after some minor repairs and was quickly being made ready to hit the road.
Sauter’s used it twice in the last month to go from the back of the field to fourth at the checkers, with a chance to win at both Bristol and Iowa last weekend.
“Chicagoland really makes you work to find the fast way around, but depending on the temperature it has a way of developing multiple grooves,” Sauter said. “Then, your job as a driver is to work out with your crew chief and the guys the best setup to make the truck work like it needs to on the long run.
“That’s what we had at Iowa — even though the truck just wasn’t very quick in qualifying. But I’ve said it before — I’ll take a truck that’s consistently quick over one that will give you a fast lap and then fall off by a country mile once you get into the race.”
Sauter’s got some additional incentive to do well at Chicagoland, as his wife, Cortney and their young son, Penn, will attend the race and hope to reprise their visit to Victory Lane that came in the second race of the season, at Martinsville. Several other members of Sauter’s family, including his sisters and older brother and fellow second-generation racer Jim Sauter Jr., will be in Joliet for Friday night’s race.
With his fourth-place finish at Iowa, Sauter moved into eighth in the championship and, while he remains 104 points behind ThorSport Racing teammate and points leader Matt Crafton, Sauter has pulled to within 30 points of fifth, which is his first goal in getting back into championship contention.
Despite downplaying his Chicagoland performance, Sauter does have the third-best average finish, 9.3, of the Truck Series drivers that have competed in all four races held there that are entered for this week’s race. Sauter also has an 11th-place average start at Chicagoland.
The veteran Ron Hornaday has the best average finish among drivers with four Chicagoland Truck starts, 7.8, while Crafton’s average finish is eighth.
Sauter will make the 124th Truck Series start of his career, in which he has a better than 50-percent level of top-10 finishes, with 64; when he takes the green flag Friday evening in the opening event of a NASCAR tripleheader with the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series that Sunday opens the 10th annual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
There are two Truck Series practice sessions on Friday, from 10-11:30 a.m. ET and 12-12:50 p.m. Both will be shown on FOX Sports 1 (the former SPEED Channel) with live timing & scoring at www.nascar.com. Coors Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. and will also be live on FOX Sports 1.
The 150-lap, 225-mile EnjoyIllinois.com 225 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET, preceded at 8 p.m. by The Setup pre-race show. MRN Radio’s live broadcast begins at 8. Live timing & scoring will be at www.nascar.com