Johnny Sauter was purely philosophical Sunday at Rockingham Speedway after his ThorSport Racing team fell short of establishing a NASCAR record in the Carolina Education Lottery 200 at The Rock presented by Cheerwine.
Sauter and his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota team had won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ first two races this season, at Daytona in February and at Martinsville, Va., last weekend. In NASCAR’s 65-year history no driver had ever won a national series’ first three races.
And even though Sunday’s winner, rookie Kyle Larson, said Sauter’s fast Toyota was the truck Larson feared the most throughout the race’s 200 laps, in the end Sauter had to come from back in the pack twice after he lost track position each time he came to pit road, and he finished fourth.
“We were trying to become the only guy to win three to start off the season, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” Sauter said on pit road after the race. “I couldn’t be more proud of my guys and everybody at ThorSport for doing such a great job.
“We have a lot of new guys going over the wall this year so we just have to work on that a little bit (but) two wins and a fourth, I don’t know anybody that would shake their head at that. I’m proud of everybody and we just need to keep digging. We’re having fun and that’s half the battle.”
Despite the disappointing result, Sauter extended his lead in the championship standings to 16 points over rookie Jeb Burton, who won his second consecutive pole position on Saturday, and to 20 points over his third-place ThorSport Racing teammate, Matt Crafton. Crafton finished sixth Sunday in his No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Toyota.
“Our Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota was really, really strong — we knew it was in practice (Saturday),” Sauter said of the truck that had the fastest average lap time across 150 minutes of practice. “We just had a couple mishaps in the pits. We didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to (but) it was fun as always — probably one of the best racetracks we go to all year.
“I can’t thank Andy Hillenburg (track president) enough, and everybody else that’s involved.”
Sauter had a very comfortable truck in practice Saturday, and it was also fast. Sauter said he was “perplexed” after he qualified 11th but he quickly came to the front, reaching the top five in only 35 laps on his first run.
But with Rockingham being particularly hard on tires, Sauter eventually had to come to pit road, when he was running second to Larson, who dominated by leading 187 of 200 laps.
“We were second and I think we came out of the pits 10th or whatever,” Sauter said. “We got back up to second or third and came to pit road and came back out seventh — gave up track position, but we didn’t have a good enough truck to win there at the end.
Sauter said he had to abuse his equipment too much getting back to the front to be able to do much once he got there. The ironic thing was, as he chased down Larson and was near him for most of the race’s seven restarts, Sauter repeatedly said he didn’t feel like his truck had enough oomph to challenge Larson’s.
On the other hand, on his in-truck radio Larson reportedly told his crew he was happy to see Sauter have trouble on pit road — actually the right rear wheel jammed in the wheel well when the tire changer tried to pull it out, causing a couple seconds’ delay — because Larson had noticed how fast Sauter’s truck was and it was Sauter he feared could give him the most trouble.
In the end, track position, visiting Sprint Cup star Joey Logano’s fresh tires and a dogged Brendan Gaughan, who snaked by Sauter at the end to grab third place, knocked the point leader into fourth. But an inopportune bit of cloud cover was the biggest trouble.
“I just got too tight,” Sauter said. “We had to adjust the truck during the race, tighten it up a little bit and then the clouds came in and I just couldn’t roll the middle (of the corners) like I had.”
Sauter’s truck was good enough that on a restart at lap 183 he actually raced side-by-side with Larson for the better part of two laps — actually passing him on the outside coming out of Turn 4 to lead a lap and get a critical bonus point. Sauter and crew chief Joe Shear Jr. agreed that if a bad day was fourth place, things weren’t all bad.
“All in all, it was a great day for us,” Sauter said. “Top fives are what we need to do if we’re going to be serious about this championship.”
The season’s fourth race, on the 1.5-mile high-banked oval at Kansas Speedway, will be held on Saturday, April 20.