Johnny Sauter’s going to war this weekend in the WinStar World Casino 400 at Texas Motor Speedway without two of his best partners in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
But Sauter, the ultimate racing warrior, is undaunted by not having his favorite ThorSport Racing Toyota truck or his all-time favorite crew chief, Joe Shear Jr. as he attempts to win his third consecutive Texas race.
“We’re going to Texas to try and do the best we can — business-as-usual for me and my guys at ThorSport,” Sauter said, sounding like anything but a guy that’s dominated numerous recent races at Texas and the winner of both of 2012’s Truck Series races on the high-speed 1.5-mile oval.
The No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota Sauter used to sweep Texas last year is currently at Ronnie Hopkins’ chassis shop in South Carolina, the victim of a brutal take-out crash at Charlotte by defending series champion James Buescher.
Shear is still unable to come to the racetrack as he’s midway through a four-race suspension for a technical violation discovered at the Kansas Speedway race in April.
Sauter’s been working for two races with his current and former truck chiefs, Jesse Saunders and Dan LeMasters and the combination’s been good enough to score a late-chase seventh-place at Dover and a probable top-10 finish at Charlotte before Buescher struck.
But regardless of whether or not Shear would be available to the team to tune on what Sauter considered his favorite truck, is irrelevant this week to Sauter — who with Shear won the first two races this season and with Saunders and LeMasters jumped from sixth to fourth in the standings last weekend in Dover, behind their championship-leading teammate Matt Crafton.
“(The sweep) was 2012 and this is 2013 and we have to prove ourselves each weekend that we go to the racetrack,” Sauter said. “Technology changes, setups change and obviously we’re going back there with something similar to what we had last year, because it worked pretty well for us, but I don’t think you can ever bank on going there with the same stuff as the year before and being the guy to beat.”
That’s too bad because in this race a year ago, Sauter led the second-most laps in the race, 41 of 167, and took the lead from Crafton with 22 laps to go and was never headed as they scored ThorSport’s second career one-two finish. In the fall Sauter led only 28 laps, all in the second half of the race, including the final 11.
Sauter’s overall record at Texas with ThorSport is stunning. In eight career starts since 2009 Sauter has seven top-seven finishes including the two wins and two seconds, an average finish of 5.8 and an average start of 9.1.
“Texas is fast and you don’t want to be off by the least little bit, but you can say that about any racetrack because handling is always such a premium,” Sauter said. “The bumps are probably the biggest thing that you fight at Texas, but handling is ultimately what wins pretty much every race, so you have to pay real good attention to that.”
As mind-boggling as it sounds, Sauter said if a truck is “right” it can run wide open a full fuel run. But depending on the conditions and the competition it might not be necessary.
“In the fall race in 2010 we had a dominant truck and had a problem in the pits and I finished second to Kyle Busch, and the last 100 laps I never lifted,” Sauter said. “So I think it’s possible, although as the racetrack ages and tire compounds change it becomes more difficult.
Last year, I never ran more than five laps wide-open and I think Texas is one of those places where, if you lift you actually go a little bit faster, contrary to what everybody thinks about wide open being faster. The characteristics of a racetrack mean different things and I think Texas is a place where, you can over-drive it.”
The Texas schedule presents the biggest challenge to locking-in a handling package, Sauter said.
“We practice in the daytime and race at nighttime and that obviously throws a curveball into the game as well,” Sauter said. “Qualifying is easy because everybody will be wide open and then in the race, about 15 laps in you’ll see the guys that have a better handling package drive to the front.”
Sauter, Saunders and LeMasters will have a chance to fine tune their truck — which was last raced into the top five at Kansas — in a pair of Thursday practices, from 12:30-1:45 p.m. ET and 2:15-3:30 p.m. Qualifying to set the starting lineup is at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s a good truck and I don’t have any qualms about it,” Sauter said. “We’ll just have to make good adjustments in practice. Obviously that truck will probably want something a little bit different than we’ve run in the past, because every truck does.
“But having said that, is it our optimum piece that we’ve dominated with? No. But is it pretty close? Yes, it is.”
The season’s seventh race, the WinStar World Casino 400, will be telecast live on SPEED Channel Friday at 9 p.m. ET, preceded by The Setup pre-race show at 8:30 p.m. MRN Radio’s live broadcast also begins at 8:30.