Johnny Sauter’s riding a six-race streak of top-10 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finishes with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota into Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, and given Sauter’s overall record it’s safe to say “the streak” should continue.
Sauter won the pole for his first start at Phoenix — even though that was on the racetrack’s previous configuration — and he scored top-five finishes in his first three races, including leading 11 laps in his debut fifth-place finish ion 2009.
But last year, much as ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton did, and in about the same timeframe — right before half-distance — Sauter was swept into a wreck not of his making. It relegated him to an atypical 25th-place finish.
“The racetrack wasn’t exactly wide enough, at the time for side-by-side racing,” Sauter said. “I was on the outside of Nelson Piquet Jr. when we went down into Turn 3 and he got loose underneath me, wriggled up into the side of my truck and the rest is history.
“It was really a shame because I would’ve liked to have seen what we would’ve had at the end of that one.”
Sauter actually pitted and made repairs that took knocked him about 50 laps behind, but in the same manner as his team’s repeatedly refused to give up this year, they repaired Sauter’s truck and he finished.
But that outcome’s done nothing to dull his ardor for Phoenix — a racetrack he likens to one of his all-time favorites and for the obvious reasons — The Milwaukee Mile.
“The old configuration was a pretty racy place — like short-track racing — and it was a lot of fun,” Sauter, a Necedah, Wis., native said. “All in all it reminded me a lot of Milwaukee.”
Of course, Sauter had positive memories from The Mile, after winning a NASCAR Busch Series race there in 2005 and once racing another series race with two of his brothers and his father.
He even maintains his affinity for the version of Phoenix that was created at mid-season in 2011, when the exit of Turn 1, the backstretch “dogleg” and frontstretch were reconfigured.
“The new configuration is obviously a little bit faster, but it still races real similar to what is was before,” Sauter said. “I don’t really know what it is that I like about it. I guess it’s just the uniqueness of it…
“Turn 1 is really a hard-braking turn, though now it’s a llitle bit different — it’s a real momentum corner because you have so much runoff room going down to the dogleg. And then Turns 3 and 4 are such a long, sweeping corner, so I guess it’s just got a lot more character than some of the places we go.”
Sauter maintains one major difference on what his teammate, Truck Series championship leader Matt Crafton, who coincidentally has a chance to clinch the title this weekend at Phoenix, thinks of the place.
“I don’t think you can sacrifice at all on one end to gain on the other — not if you’re going to win the race,” Sauter said. “I think whoever gets it right on both ends is gonna be the guy to beat, so even though there are some racetracks that you have to sacrifice one end to be better on the other, I think Phoenix has enough grip and it’s new enough pavement that you’re going to have to be right on both ends to win the race.”
The truck Sauter will race at Phoenix is the piece he had at Eldora. It’s a Tundra that had to be completely rebuilt from the ground-up after the roughhouse, mid-summer dirt-track race. It’s wearing a never-seen, mellow jalapeno green paint scheme representing that flavor of Carolina Nut’s flavored, roasted peanuts.
In all, Sauter believes the streak can continue through Homestead next weekend — though he’s hardly willing to settle for top 10s.
“It’s obviously very satisfying and I’m real proud of my team and what we’ve been able to accomplish.,” Sauter said. “The last six races have been awesome — if you take Chicago out of the mix, where we had a top 10 but we struggled and were still able to salvage a decent finish — we’ve been on a pretty good run here.”
It specifically has brought Sauter from just outside the top 10 in the championships to fourth, where he now has a great shot to hold onto a place on stage at the Nov. 18 awards ceremony.
“But we’ve still got two races to go,” Sauter said. “If we can finish the year as good as we’ve been running we could end up second in the points if some of the guys in front of us have trouble.
“It’s just good to know that we’re going to the racetrack and we’re going in the right direction and things are running good.”
The two-day Phoenix Truck Series weekend begins Thursday with a pair of practice sessions, from 5:30-6:25 p.m. ET and 7:35-8:30 p.m. Keystone Light Pole Qualifying to set the starting lineup is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday, with TV coverage on FOX Sports 2.
Friday’s 150-lap, 150-mile Lucas Oil 150 will be telecast live on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. The live broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio begins at 7:30 p.m. Live timing & scoring for the weekend’s events will be at www.nascar.com