If Johnny Sauter goes on to win the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ championship, he might look back on Saturday’s Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway as a critical turning point.
Sauter became the second driver in the 19-year history of the Truck Series to win the first two events of the season, tying the veteran Mark Martin, who accomplished the feat in 2006 when he ran a partial schedule for owner Jack Roush.
Six weeks earlier, Sauter won the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. To win at Martinsville, Sauter overcame a body-damaged No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota truck, debilitating tire wear and a mid-race pit stop that put his truck in the middle of the field and its driver, well, nearly beside himself.
But Sauter recovered his composure and set about getting back to the front, from where he led only the last 17 laps of the day. His performance had his crew chief, Joe Shear Jr., marveling at the growth his driver’s showing this season and the results it’s enabled them to harvest.
“Our strategy was really to take it easy and race the racetrack instead of everybody else,” Shear said, admitting that restarting 19th with 100 laps to go had him concerned. “I got a little nervous about getting back in track position there, but I have to admit Johnny Sauter is growing up with me.
“He’s not really known for saving equipment and he saved a lot more (Saturday) than I gave him credit for. I really didn’t think our truck was that fast. I thought it was good, but I didn’t think it was as fast as it was at the end. But then we had some pretty good lap times there at the end, so I was pretty impressed.”
On the final restart, with 17 laps left, Sauter struck after his teammate, No. 13 SealMaster Toyota driver Todd Bodine, was spun by Kevin Harvick going into Turn 3 to bring out the 11th and final caution.
When the green flag flew Sauter drove around the outside of leader and pole-sitter Jeb Burton and raced away to a 1.8-second victory over his teammate, Matt Crafton, who was closing fast at the end in his No. 88 Rip It Energy Fuel / Menards Toyota.
With his second consecutive win and the eighth of his career — which also marked the third time in its history ThorSport had two trucks finish one-two — Sauter now has a 12-point lead in the championship over Burton, with 20 races remaining. On a great day for ThorSport, Crafton now sits third in the points and Bodine is seventh — the first time in its history ThorSport has three trucks in the top-10.
Sauter earned kudos at Martinsville for his calm, calculated management of his race truck and his tires. And after the race he credited an off-weekend excursion to Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway, where he finished third in his first late model race of the season, with the PASS South Series. Sauter said lessons he learned there were critical for the Martinsville win once he and Shear figured out tire wear.
“I go back to that late model race, and I’ve never seen tire wear like that in my life,” said Sauter, who set fast time in PASS qualifying but used his tires up and had nothing left to mount a challenge at the finish. “I just kept thinking about that race and what I feel like I did wrong, and trying to apply it to (Saturday).
“People can say whatever they want about that or laugh about it, but it’s true.”
Sauter’s hoping he can apply everything he learned at Martinsville, this weekend at Rockingham Speedway, a one-mile high-banked oval in the North Carolina sand hills that is legendary for abusing tires. The season’s third race, the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at The Rock presented by Cheerwine, starts at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.