Johnny Sauter’s hoping his favorite No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota and one of the most special racetracks in his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career add up to a win Saturday in the 17th Smith’s 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Sauter won the first of his eight career Truck Series victories at Las Vegas, in 2009, and he has the best average finish — seventh in four races and the highest average Loop Data Driver Rating — of any other series driver over the last eight races on the 1.5-mile oval. Sauter’s also carries the series’ best percentage of quality passes, 95.5, meaning most of the truck’s he’s passed have been near the front of the field.
“Vegas will always be a special place to me because that’s where we got our first Truck Series win,” Sauter said of his 2009 score for ThorSport Racing, in his 31st career start in a truck. “No matter what happens you always look forward to going out to Vegas and racing, because of that first win.”
Sauter had a great opportunity to go four-for-four in top-five finishes at Las Vegas, but last year wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time was in effect and a 21st-place DNF was the result.
“Two guys got to running too hard together, they wrecked each other and I had no place to go and drove right into (the accident),” Sauter said. “It’s a very likely scenario that we’d have four top fives at Vegas if not for that, but that’s racing — stuff happens.”
“Truck 45,” currently decorated in Carolina Nut’s blue-and-black sea salt and pepper roasted peanuts’ livery, has become Sauter’s workhorse and it’ll be the primary for Las Vegas after a side-by-side surface-plate comparison between it and the team’s next-best Tundra.
“We ran it at Bristol and Iowa, where we came from the back and finished in the top five at both places, and at Chicagoland, which could’ve been better than 10th if circumstances had worked out better late in the race,” Sauter said. “So I know it’s a good truck and I feel good about it.
“It’s a comfortable truck and every time we’ve run it this season it’s run in the top five even if it didn’t finish there. So the truck has speed and we just have to make sure we put the right setup in it so we can go fast. There’s nothing wrong with that truck.”
Sauter said there’s one key element with the truck that was built on chassis No. 45 at ThorSport Racing’s shop in Sandusky.
“It has a good body on it, first and foremost,” Sauter said. “I’ve been racing long enough to know that if you’re going someplace and you’re at an aerodynamic disadvantage you can make all the mechanical changes you want and you can’t overcome that aero disadvantage.
“So ol’ 45 has got a good body on what seems to be a good chassis. It responds well to changes and it has a good balance — just everything about it seems right.”
And thus Sauter’s hoping to win his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season. He’s only raced the current version of LVMS, but that’s plenty satisfying to him, especially given his record there. He also has an ace up his sleeve in the person of former three-time series champion crew chief Dennis Connor, who has three poles and two race wins at Las Vegas.
“It’s got a lot of banking and it’s fast and it’s got some bumps in it that give it a little character,” Sauter said. “It’s gotten better in the last couple years as far as being able to race side-by-side there, for sure. So it’s the kind of place that you wake up with a smile on your face because it’s a cool place to race.
“And let’s face it, who doesn’t like going to Vegas in general? Being there to race is kind of the icing on the cake. We’re staying at the Monte Carlo, which is the best on the (Las Vegas) Boulevard and we’re doing autographs for the fans Friday night at The Pub inside the hotel (complex).
“Our buddies from Mud Jug are back on the truck for a special one-race deal and it’ll be good to see them again.”
Sauter still has his sights set on reaching the top-five in the Truck Series’ standings. His ThorSport teammate, Matt Crafton, has led the points for the last 12 races and he’s 110 ahead of Sauter — but Sauter is only 28 points out of fifth and that’s his primary goal in the final six-race stretch run of the season.
Sauter will make the 125th Truck Series start of his career, in which he has a better than 50-percent level of top-10 finishes, with 65; when he takes the green flag Saturday evening in the final Truck Series stand-alone race of the season. Sauter’s also excelled in qualifying at Las Vegas, with a series-best average start of 5.3.
Crafton and Sauter will appear at a public autograph session Friday kicking off the Truck Series’ weekend from 6-7 p.m. MT at The Pub inside ThorSport’s Las Vegas hotel partner, the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino at 3770 S Las Vegas Blvd.
On Saturday there are two Truck Series practice sessions, from 12-1:15 p.m. ET and 1:45-3 p.m. Coors Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled for 6:15 p.m.
The 146-lap, 219-mile (350K) Smith’s 350 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 (the former SPEED Channel) at 8:30 p.m. ET, preceded at 8 p.m. by The Setup pre-race show. The live broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio begins at 8. Live timing & scoring for all the day’s events will be at www.nascar.com.