Johnny Sauter securely locked himself into the top five in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race with his sixth consecutive top-10 finish, a second-place Friday night in the WinStar World Casino 350K at Texas Motor Speedway in his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota.
Sauter used great work by his ThorSport Racing over-the-wall crew and a series of minute adjustments by crew chief Dennis Connor to fall just 2.663 seconds short of beating Ty Dillon’s dominant race-winning truck.
With the exception of one lap that occurred on a yellow-flag pit cycle, Sauter was never scored out of the top 10 after starting the race in eighth. The end result of that was Sauter jumping from fifth to fourth in the championship standings with two races remaining, after fourth-place point man Jeb Burton appeared to run out of fuel and fell from 11th to 26th with seven laps left. Burton is now fifth, 10 points behind Sauter.
Sauter out-ran his closest pursuers, Miguel Paludo and Ryan Blaney — who came into the race 10 points behind Sauter and tied for sixth — for most of the night. Blaney ran at the front of the field for a handful of laps but fell to 15th at the finish. Paludo finished eighth, one position behind Darrell Wallace Jr. and that pair is now tied for sixth, 16 points behind Sauter.
“Fourth in points is nothing to laugh at, I guess, with the way the year has kind of gone for us — the summer was pretty brutal,” said the low-key Sauter. “We’re back on our game and this was a solid run for us.”
Sauter started his run of top-10 finishes after a DNF at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park due to a fuel pump issue. Since then he’s finished second twice, won his third race of the season at Talladega and was fourth at Iowa. Friday night Sauter chopped eight more points off ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton’s championship lead — cutting it to 74 points — but Crafton is on-line to clinch his and ThorSport’s first Truck championship next weekend at Phoenix.
So the Texas race was pretty satisfying for Sauter, even though he failed to win either 2013 Texas outing after sweeping both races here in 2012 — the June event a one-two ThorSport romp with Crafton second.
But it proved Sauter’s solid just when he needs to be. On Friday, he moved into the top-five at lap 61, quickly moved up and then never fell lower than fourth for the rest of the race.
“The Carolina Nut / Curb Records Toyota was really good on long runs,” Sauter said. “The short run there, we would start off a little too tight all night. All we did was half-pound air pressure adjustments all night long and that last pit stop we made no adjustments and started off really, really good and got too free at the end.
“I’m just proud of everybody at ThorSport, everybody at Triad (Racing Technologies, engine supplier), TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Toyota — just a solid night for us.
The race was certainly an improvement over practice for Sauter, who had a top-15 truck in Thursday’s two practice sessions but, with his experience and success at Texas — he came into the race with a 6.5 average finish in nine career starts — looked to be hiding something for Friday.
It didn’t show up in Keystone Light Pole Qualifying, where Sauter was only eighth quickest, but in the race he was usually coming forward.
“It was pretty solid,” Sauter said. “We ran a lot of laps in practice (Thursday) and was really loose for some reason — more than we typically are here. I feel like I got a pretty good feel for this racetrack, especially on long-run stuff.
“We just kept working on tightening up the chassis so I was a little confused (Thursday) night after practice was over so starting the race I didn’t really know what to expect. I was free qualifying and then we started the race and I was actually a little bit snug. I thought it was perfect and it was going to come to us.”
But in the end Sauter admitted to one maladjustment that might have doomed their chance at Victory if Dillon, who led 130 of 147 laps, hadn’t been so good. The final restart occurred on lap 107, which left Dillon a 40-lap green flag stretch to prevail in.
“We made very minute air pressure changes all night long and then sure enough as fate would have it, I kept telling them on the radio that once this thing goes towards the end of the race that it was going to cool off and the truck would get free,” Sauter said. “And sure enough, 10 laps into that last run we were just a tick too free (after making no adjustments.
“I don’t know if we ever had anything for (Dillon), though… We’ve won here before and I was running a harder, faster pace than I ever have. Their truck must have been phenomenal.”
The series’ next race is Friday night at Phoenix International Raceway, followed by the season finale at Homestead, where Sauter led the most laps and won in 2011 in a vain attempt to beat Austin Dillon, Ty’s older brother for the championship.