Johnny Sauter took firm aim on a seat at the season-ending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ awards ceremony with a spectacular win Saturday with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota in the eighth annual Fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.
The victory, Sauter’s third this season and a bookend to his win in the season-opening race on Talladega’s “twin” racetrack, Daytona International Speedway, moved Sauter from eighth in the standings to sixth, only four points out of fifth. The top-five drivers in the standings will be honored on stage at the Nov. 18 awards ceremony in Miami Beach, Fla.
Sauter’s made his run back towards the top-five since three-time Truck Series champion crew chief Dennis Connor took over as Sauter’s chief mechanic in August. Since then, Connor’s tried to create a closer working relationship with ThorSport Racing teammates Matt Crafton and his crew chief, Carl “Junior” Joiner, and that was apparent in the last third of the Talladega race.
Sauter was pushed to the lead after the final restart with three laps to go by Crafton’s No. 88 Slim Jim / Menards Toyota and the only downside to Sauter’s victory, the ninth of his career in 126 starts, was that Crafton was caught-up in a 12-truck accident that broke out behind their tight, two-truck tandem less than 400 yards from the finish line.
Crafton did spin across the line in ninth position and expanded his lead in the championship to 57 points over Ty Dillon with four races remaining. Since Sauter won the season opener and Crafton’s led the standings for the last 14 races, the ThorSport pair are the only drivers to lead the Truck Series this season.
To achieve his short-term goal of the top-five Sauter, whose three wins are the most this season by a Truck Series regular — Sprint Cup star and Truck Series owner/driver Kyle Busch has four — and are part of his series-best eight top-five finishes in 18 events, will race on four more tracks in the next four weeks, three of which he’s won on in the last two seasons.
“You can’t ever give up and this ThorSport team has proven that, over and over,” Sauter said after leaving Talladega’s Victory Lane. “It was a crazy race, like all these (superspeedway) races usually are. But I watched last year’s race, where I finished second, the other night and studied it pretty hard and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, all day.
“Last year I pushed Parker Kligerman to the win so I knew with about six (laps) left the tandem was going to be the way to go. And then it just worked out perfectly because my teammate Matt Crafton was there the whole time (over the last 33 laps). At one point, we were 15th and 16th with about 30-to-go and I pushed him to the lead and we were sitting there looking pretty good. From there we had track position the rest of the day.”
But from there, there were also four of the race’s seven caution periods, including the final one that flew when Sauter had opened-up a sizeable lead over the melee erupting behind him. In the end, Sauter led only five laps as an integral part of a day in which a Truck Series Talladega record for lead changes (29) was set and the mark for different leaders (13) was tied.
“I’ve always wanted to win at this racetrack and to be able to do it (Saturday) was big,” Sauter said. “I want to say (the final laps) were by design, but it really wasn’t. (Me and Crafton) actually got separated a little bit and as we hooked back up, I rode the brake and we hooked back up and I was like, ‘Hey this is actually going to work out better and we’re going to have huge momentum.’
“With three-to-go there’s nobody you’d rather have on your rear bumper cover than your teammate, and he pushed and pushed and pushed and it worked out in our favor. It’s unfortunate that Matt got tore up because it would have been really cool to have another one-two ThorSport finish but I’m proud of everyone at ThorSport — what a great effort.”
Crafton now has more than a full-race lead, as the most points a driver can gain in a race is 48 — if Crafton doesn’t even start — and his team has recorded 17 top-10 finishes in the season’s 18 races. Sauter had come to Talladega 26 points out of a seat at the championship banquet that the top-five finishers earn.
Connor would do anything to have four more like Saturday.
“We had a team meeting before the race to talk about what we wanted to do, and Johnny and spotter Tab (Boyd) had worked out exactly what they wanted to do,” Connor said. “But usually all the planning that you do falls to the wayside when they drop the green flag, so (Saturday) was just our day because everything we planned worked out, from our fuel mileage to our strategy.
“We could have done a couple of green-white-checkers if we had to, but I’m so lucky to come back to the series with a great driver like Johnny and a team that puts in the long, hard hours and have really put their lives by the wayside to finish out this year and get the best results that we possibly can.”
The win was the ninth of Sauter’s five-year Truck Series career with ThorSport and indeed, it was the team-high eighth win for ThorSport this season. That total includes four wins by ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards champion Frank Kimmel and Crafton’s Truck Series score at Kansas in the spring. The appreciation easily flowed out of Sauter late Saturday afternoon in Alabama.
“This is awesome,” Sauter said in an emotion-charged Victory Lane. “I’m so proud of everybody at ThorSport, Toyota, TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Triad (Racing Technologies, engine supplier), Carolina Nut, Curb Records, (owners) Duke and Rhonda Thorson, (listed owner) Mike Curb — all these people that make this possible and Matt Crafton, especially.
“That was, I think, the best illustration of teamwork you could ever have. I’m so proud of him. Unfortunately they got tore up (but) this is a huge win for all these guys, for everybody at ThorSport. Thank you everybody — it was a great day and we have a big week coming up.”
Sauter’s team, led by Connor, has finished first, second, 10th and fourth in its last four starts, moving from 39 points out of fifth to his current margin.
Even better, the series next races at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where Sauter also won, in April, as he started the season with two wins and four consecutive top-five finishes. And while the victory was the first on a superspeedway for Connor, he has no less than 10 career Truck wins on tracks under a mile — though he has none at Martinsville.