Johnny Sauter and ThorSport Racing crew chief Dennis Connor’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series relationship is barely two races old — but it’s easy to see their day’s coming — and it might be as soon as Wednesday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Saturday, for the third consecutive race — and fourth in his last eight outings — Sauter’s No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota was wrecked by another competitor, which at Michigan International Speedway resulted in a resilient 20th-place finish.
Sauter had a brutal forecast of how his day was going to go when, after starting 11th, on only the third of 100 laps an errant competitor ran into the right front fender of Sauter’s Tundra, forcing him to pit road.
“This was only my second race, so I’m not feeling too beat-up yet,” said Connor, who was in his first official race leading Sauter’s ThorSport Racing crew after joining the team, as an observer, at Pocono. “But the guys were devastated. To work their guts out and have a truck that, in the right circumstances could’ve won the race but it’s all tore to hell again because of these young drivers that don’t have respect for their fellow drivers, is almost too much to take.”
Sauter proved his truck’s potential was everything he, Connor and truck chief Jesse Saunders had expected in practice Friday when Sauter drove from the back of the field into the top 10 before lap 20. His crew gave him a cracking pit stop in that sequence and things seemed positive, for a change.
But Sauter once again ended up beside himself, in a manner of speaking, when a couple younger drivers made ill-timed errors.
“I think (Max Gresham) got loose, I’m not exactly sure why or how,” Sauter said of the lap 27 caution. “He spun and we were checked up and then the 54 (Darrell Wallace Jr.) — I don’t know if he didn’t see anything coming or what…”
Wallace told a Toyota representative he was concentrating on making a pass and was unaware a wreck was occurring in front of him, and he just drove into Sauter’s truck.
The outcome had the Wisconsin veteran Sauter, who won the season’s first two races and was thrilled to be paired with the three-time champion crew chief Connor, just shaking his head.
“I just hate it for these guys on my team,” Sauter said. “The truck was definitely capable of winning the race. That was (obvious, because) we pitted on that first caution — came down and got fuel and drove right to the front.”
But once again, Sauter had virtually nothing to show for all his and his teammates’ efforts. After his crew rebuilt his truck, Sauter came back to finish 20th but in the process showed just what kind of piece he had.
“The truck was absolutely that good — there was no question in Johnny’s mind and very little question in my mind that the truck was going to win the race, without any problem,” said a disgusted Connor. “When we first pitted he came from the back all the way back to third place, in three laps.
“On the third lap from the end of the race, with the truck tore all to hell, he was the sixth-quickest truck on the track, not even in the draft and not even trying to run fast. The truck was that good.”
Sauter fell back to 10th in the drivers’ standings, dropping to 95 points behind ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton heading to Wednesday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I just hate it for my guys more than anybody,” Sauter said. “They work their (butts) off and I just hate it. I don’t know what the deal is, but I’m just proud of everybody at ThorSport, with this Carolina Nut / Curb Records Toyota — everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development), (engine builder) Triad (Performance Technologies) — the motor was good. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Me and Johnny are on a great wavelength right now and we’re going to get along extremely well,” Connor said. “We’re going to win a lot of races whenever we get this darned thing turned around.”