Avondale, Ariz. — Johnny Sauter figures as a 38-year-old in an increasingly young Camping World Truck Series field, this could be one of his last chances to win a NASCAR title as a driver.
Old pal Joe Shear believes it might be Sauter’s best.
Lifelong friends and frequent co-workers, they’re eager and ready to do what they’ve done best — win together — when it counts the most.
“It’s weird because I can’t really sit here and say, ‘I wish this was a little bit better,’ because I feel like it’s up to us to execute because we’ve got all the pieces to the puzzle,” Sauter said this week.
One of those final pieces landed at GMS Racing in June.
That was when Shear arrived as Sauter’s crew chief — for the fourth time in 17 years — after starting the season with JR Motorsports and driver Cole Custer.
Since then they’ve been “fluffin’ and buffin’,” as Sauter likes to say, on a fleet of Chevrolets and a team that opened its first season with a victory at Daytona and emerged in the final month of the season as the strongest in the series.
After victories the past two weekends at the short track in Martinsville, Va., and on the banks in Fort Worth, Texas, the season will finish up on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway here late Friday and then on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway a week later.
“Now in the game, we’re trying to go for the sweep,” Shear said Thursday at Phoenix International Raceway.
“The first goal was to get our ticket to (the title round at) Homestead. Then Texas, we … hit on some stuff that worked like we wanted to, to go to Homestead, and we won that deal. Now we’re like, we’re halfway there now; might as well go all the way.”
With the two latest checkered flags, Sauter has won 16 times in NASCAR and Shear 14. Eleven of those victories have come with Shear on Sauter’s pit box, 10 in trucks and one in what is now the Xfinity Series.
And before moving to NASCAR, the two sons of Midwest short-track rivals dominated the old American Speed Association by winning 10 of 20 races and the title in 2001.
Sauter, a native of Necedah, Wis., is the youngest racing son of the late Jim Sauter, one of the top barnstormers out of Wisconsin in the 1970s and ’80s and into the ’90s, frequently with Shear, who lived on one side or another of the Illinois state line.
Joe Jr. is 10 years older than Johnny, but they became friends — brothers, really — at an early age, talking about racing before they ever worked on the same team. They kept in contact, too, during their times apart.
Both struggle to explain what makes them so much more successful together than individually, but it’s clear there’s something.
“For whatever reason, no matter how bad things go or can get, I feel like we can reason with each other,” said Sauter.
“If we run bad, I’m not going to say the setup sucks and he’s not going to say the driver can’t drive. You hear so much of that stuff, and I have throughout my career.
“We both take running bad personally, and it’s like, OK, what do we need to do? What have we got to fix? How can we make this better?”
They’ve gotten on each other’s nerves, too, the way brothers do.
“He pushes my buttons because he expects a lot out of me, and I push his buttons because I expect a lot out of him,” Shear said.
But the last time Shear remembers the two being at odds was three years ago — in their most recent stay together, at the ThorSport Truck team — but like most family squabbles, it worked itself out with no lingering effects.
Given the record Sauter and Shear have together, the question they’re often asked is why they’re ever apart.
If the answer were only that simple.
“Believe me, we try,” Shear said. “Everywhere we go, we want to go together. We’ve tried that.
“But there’s money and politics and sponsorship stuff, and people have got people (in positions) already.”
And every individual team, every multicar operation is different. Employees have to respond to leadership. Everyone has to work well together, not just the driver and crew chief.
“It just doesn’t work out,” Shear said.
But then, somewhere, somehow, the two reconnect. They always do. And they often win.
“Sometimes we’ve got to do it the hard way,” Shear said, “but it works out.”
So now the two have two races to make it work out again, bigger than ever before. Sauter won at Homestead in 2011. His top finish at Phoenix has been third place.
“If they said we were going to Pocono for one of these next two, I might cringe a little bit,” Sauter said.
“But Phoenix … (is) a place we can definitely go and keep our momentum going. Homestead … I like racing there. But there’s a lot on the line.
“We’ve just got to manage expectations and go down there and not make any mistakes and race our tail off.”