Johnny Sauter was disappointed Friday night not to penetrate any further into the top 10 than eighth in the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, but the “shiny side of the coin” was the finish was Sauter’s career-best-extending seventh consecutive NASCAR Camping World Truck Series top-10 in ThorSport Racing’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota.
That means Sauter goes to next Friday night’s season-finale Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida with a long shot at reaching third in the championship, as he’s currently 27 points behind defending series champion James Buescher.
But while Sauter’s ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton put himself in position to only have to start the race to claim the drivers’ championship in his No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Toyota, Sauter is safely fourth, 13 points ahead of fifth-place rookie Jeb Burton.
While Sauter considered the finish, which came from a seventh-place starting position, an under-performance, his green-hued Tundra outfitted to celebrate Carolina Nut’s Jalapeno-flavored roasted peanuts emerged from a rough 150-lap race virtually intact.
“Track position was everything and that was all it took, if you could ever get it,” Sauter said as he took a low-key stroll through Phoenix’s pitch dark Sprint Cup garage, on his way to the airport. “The guy that won (Erik Jones) never put on left-side tires? That’s a joke and (no tire wear) doesn’t make for great racing.”
Sauter’s crew’s recent pit work had been a strong point in a victory at Talladega and second-place runs at Las Vegas and Texas. But the number of adjustments Sauter’s crew was forced to make resulted in him losing at least a spot or two each time it hit the service alley.
The variety of changes put crew chief Dennis Connor in position to praise the over-the-wall gang for holding its own in the face of extra wrench twisting on pit road, but that didn’t help Sauter’s demeanor.
“Every (change) we did never even tickled the (front tire) chatter and the push we had,” Sauter said. “If you couldn’t get track position it was hard to go anywhere if you couldn’t get the truck working any better.
“If you could do two rounds of wedge in the left-rear and two rounds of wedge in the right-rear and two rounds on the track bar and two pounds (of air pressure) on the right rear and not even tickle (the handling problem), that’s not good.”
Sauter’s truck held its own at the start of the race — moving from seventh to fifth for the first 36 laps, but after the first pit stop he fell back to just outside the top 10, where he was stuck for virtually the entire race, never really advancing or dropping much.
In the end, Sauter dodged a handful of late cautions to advance into the top-10, and then finally up to eighth at the finish.
“It’s all good,” Sauter said. “We’re all not happy with where we finished but the guys never gave up (because) they never do. We gained a little more in the points and now we can still reach second or third if something happens (at Homestead).”
In 2011, when Sauter lost the Truck Series’ championship by just six points to Austin Dillon when a rain shower caused the race to be called short of full distance, Sauter led the most laps and won the race. He’s ready to pull a similar stunt this time around with his teammate already due for a visit to victory lane to celebrate ThorSport’s third championship this season.
The Trucks’ owners’ championship is still up for grabs, with Crafton’s No. 88 holding a 23-point edge over Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51, which won at Phoenix with Jones.
“We love Homestead,” Sauter said. “We have a good history there and it’s gonna be a good end of the season for us.”