Sauter Has Everything In Place to Repeat as NASCAR Truck Champ

AVONDALE, Ariz – Statistically speaking, Johnny Sauter is having a noticeably better season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series than he did last year.

His goal is to have it end just as well.

“If you don’t get any better they won’t keep you around, right?” the defending series champion said Friday before the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway.

“We’ve had a way better year, average-finish-wise, and unfortunately I feel like we should have six wins right now. … I guess anybody can say that in the garage, though.

“But yeah, our stuff is better than it’s ever been and we just continue to get better and that’s exciting.”

Sauter, 39, a native of Necedah, Wis., came to the desert as the first driver locked into the final round of the truck playoffs, based on his victory a week earlier at Texas Motor Speedway.

Then on Friday night he collected his fourth victory of the season, one more than last year. Sauter beat John Hunter Nemechek in a two-lap shootout after teammates Noah Gragson and Christopher Bell crashed while battling for the lead.

Bell, two-time series champion Matt Crafton and rookie Austin Cindric advanced via the point standings to join Sauter for the championship battle in a week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Although a handful of opportunities have slipped away from Sauter and the GMS Racing No. 21 team, he had led more than three times as many laps as last year and his average finish entering Friday was 6.7, up more than a full position.

Because Sauter locked himself into the final with a week to spare, the team could have looked to Phoenix — where it had nothing to gain in terms of the championship — to prepare for Homestead. Just like last year, though, that was never a consideration.

“You see it in other sports all the time where a team walks into the playoffs and then they’re nowhere to be found,” Sauter said. “You’ve got to keep the stove on. You’ve got to keep digging.”

Driving for a first-year team last season, Sauter never really was counted among the favorites, at least until he won two consecutive races in the final month.

All eyes were on William Byron, who was a highly touted 18-year-old enjoying a spectacular season before an engine failure at Phoenix cost him a spot in the final round of the playoffs. A victory in the season finale was his seventh but he could finish no better than fifth in the standings.

Similarly this year, Sauter hasn’t necessarily been the man in the spotlight even as champ. He’s a 16-year NASCAR veteran who finally made a home in the third division, while the 22-year-old Toyota prodigy Bell is on his way up.

Heading into Friday night, Bell had a series-high five victories and also led in poles, top-five and top-10 finishes, laps led and average finish. Bell entered Friday as the point leader.

“I look at anyone in here” as a title threat, Sauter said. “Crafton last year, he was awesome at Homestead until the last run. I’m looking at everybody, not just one.”

Sauter won the title last year with a third-place finish at Homestead. In 10 truck starts at the 1.5-mile south Florida oval, he has one victory (2011) and seven top-10s.

The Ford 200 truck race is set for Friday evening with the Xfinity Series finale Saturday and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship round Sunday.

“Homestead’s a place that can throw you for a loop,” Sauter said. “You can unload pretty good. You practice in the daytime and the track will change a lot. By the time practice is over, you’re scratching your head, going, ‘OK … what’s going on here.’ … It’s a place you’ve really got to trust what you’re feeling and not worry about the stopwatch.

It’s been a good place for me. I wouldn’t say it’s been great, but a good place. I’ve got a lot of experience. I hope that helps.”

 

, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel