Johnny Sauter was frustrated after a paint-swapping battle Sunday resulted in a fourth-place finish for his No. 98 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff / Curb Records Toyota Tundra in the Kroger 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
The race, originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon but postponed by rain until Sunday following the NASCAR Sprint Cup STP 500, took the green flag just after 5:30 p.m. ET and finished almost two hours later at dusk.
The silver lining for Sauter was, for the second year in a row, he left Martinsville with no less than a share of the Truck Series’ points lead. Sauter, who tied a NASCAR all-time national series record by winning the first two races last season, is tied with Timothy Peters atop the standings.
Four points behind in third is ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton, who won Sunday’s second race of the season in his No. 88 Ideal Door / Menards Tundra.
The feisty Sauter was feeling his oats Sunday after he led 61 of 256 laps — one fewer than top lap-leader Ron Hornaday — but only had fourth to show for it after he’d won this race in two of the last three seasons.
Sauter traded paint with several competitors but had little to say afterward, after the dust had settled.
“That’s Martinsville,” Sauter said, almost spitting out the words. “I’ve been dumped here plenty of times and if people don’t like it, (oh, well).”
Sauter, who won three Truck Series races a year ago and started last season with victories at Daytona and Martinsville, had a hard-fought finish after an up-and-down day, as crew chief Gene Wachtel explained.
“It started with four of us having to push (start) the truck off pit road with a dead battery,” Wachtel said with a laugh, after the field was impounded overnight behind the Sprint Cup garage, at which point it got cold enough for snow to fall on the speedway Sunday morning. “So that was a pretty good low point.
“But our truck was really good during the middle portion of the race, and we led a lot of laps there.”
When Truck Series’ group-style elimination qualifying was rained-out for the second consecutive race, Sauter lined his verdant green Smokey Snuff/Curb Tundra up 14th.
Any concerns the team had in two partially rain-splashed Friday practices were mostly allayed by the No. 98 Toyota’s performance. Sauter moved up quickly and led for the first time at lap 112, past the halfway point until lap 137.
Sauter even held his own after he mistakenly left pit road with only two tires on his first pit stop when the rest of the top runners took four. Sauter was animated on his radio, but after coming out with good track position he only dropped a couple spots in the next stretch, before maneuvering himself into position to lead the race.
“At the end, there, on our last stop it cooled-off quite a bit and I made a small adjustment,” Wachtel said, smiling again. “I don’t know if the small adjustment was too much or if the track cooling down so much accounted for it, but we lost the balance of the truck a little bit at the end.
“We know we still ended up with a good finish — a top-five finish. And we learned a lot this weekend. We’ll go home and go through some of the things we learned with the extra (Friday) practice and get better next time.”
The race’s closing stages were intense, but so was the middle, as Sauter and Peters swapped the lead five times between laps 138 and 178 — with at least one of the changes involving some of the body contact Sauter referred to, which resulted in payback later that almost knocked Sauter out of the top 10.
“Fourth is fourth and I obviously could never be satisfied or happy with that — particularly after Gene and the guys worked as hard as they did to give me a pretty good Tundra,” Sauter said. “We’ve been so good here, it’s really hard to be happy when we have a shot to win, and don’t.”
Sauter was just inside the top 10 when the first of two green-white-checkered restarts occurred. On the backstretch Sauter made contact with Erik Jones in heavy traffic and Jones spun, creating the second GWC situation.
Sauter restarted eighth then but raced hard for a lap-and-a-half to get to fourth before a backstretch melee brought out a race-ending caution flag.
Sauter gets a chance to get his third consecutive top-five finish this season, which would equal his start a year ago, on May 9, when the series races at Kansas Speedway.
ABOUT SMOKEY MOUNTAIN: Smokey Mountain is America’s original and best-selling tobacco-free smokeless brand. Appealing to adult smokeless tobacco consumers who are seeking tobacco-free and nicotine-free alternatives, Smokey Mountain is available in long cut and easy-to-use pouches. For more information visit www.SmokeySnuff.com.
ABOUT CURB RECORDS: Curb Records is one of the world’s leading independent music companies. Owned and operated by Mike Curb since 1962, Curb Records has achieved 375 Billboard number one records, nearly 1,200 Billboard Top Ten records and charted just under 4,000 Billboard records. Today’s roster includes some of the top names in Country, Christian and Pop/Rock music. Curb Records was honored as Billboard Magazine’s 2001 Country Music Label of the Year and Radio & Records Magazine’s 2005 Overall Gold Label of the Year. For more information visit www.curb.com.
ABOUT THORSPORT RACING: ThorSport Racing, based in a state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot facility in Sandusky, Ohio, is the longest-tenured NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team. ThorSport, which has run in the Truck Series since 1996, in 2014 will run the No. 88 Menards Toyota Tundra driven by 2013 drivers’ champion Matt Crafton, the No. 98 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff/Nextant Aerospace/Carolina Nut Co./Curb Records Toyota Tundra driven by Johnny Sauter and the No. 13 VAMP/VaporBrands International, Inc. Toyota Tundra driven by Jeb Burton in the Truck Series and the No. 13 Toyota Camry in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards.