The Frontstretch: Beyond the Cockpit: Johnny Sauter On A New Year, Down Time And Dirt Track Racing by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Wednesday April 3, 2013

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After a six-week vacation, the Camping World Truck Series is back in action this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. With a victory to open the season, Johnny Sauter sits as the current points leader, and he’s got his best start to the year since he started racing full-time in the series in 2009. This week, Sauter sat down with Frontstretch.com’s Beth Lunkenheimer to talk about getting the Daytona monkey off of his back, dirt track racing and so much more.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: To get us started, I’ve heard that the number change from the No. 13 to the No. 98 this year had to do with Mike Curb’s association with it, but is that the only reason?

Johnny Sauter: As far as I know it is. He just wanted to have a common number across the board. It’s kind of ironic how it all worked out. His Cup car is 98, his Nationwide car is 98 and now his truck is 98. And in some various other things he’s involved with — like his IndyCar program at the Brickyard is always No. 98. He’s pretty much got the number everywhere, and we were one of the few that were a different number with the 13. And actually, ThorSport had the number 98 already from last year, so it was kind of an easy switch.

Lunkenheimer: What were your thoughts headed into Daytona with a new number and a fresh start?

Sauter: The number didn’t really phase me at all either way, because I can’t see it anyway from where I sit. I know a lot of people were familiar with seeing me driving the No. 13 truck, and every now and then I slip up and say the number 13 — oh wait, the 98. But I think we’re getting more used to the new number, and to start off the season in Daytona with a win — with the new number and a new paint scheme — especially the way Daytona has gone for us in the past, it was special.

Johnny Sauter is riding high after his Daytona win, and he intends to carry his momentum all the way to a CWTS title.

Someone asked me the other day if I really felt like we could go to Daytona and win. I said well our trucks are always fast enough, but we never seemed to get the finish. So no, I guess I didn’t really think we could win it, but we ended up winning it and the rest is history.

Lunkenheimer: Speaking of Daytona, what was going through your mind on that last lap, knowing how much bad luck has hit you at the track, especially that close to the end of the race?

Sauter: Well, when you go to Daytona — or restrictor plate races in general — all you can do is put yourself in the best position you can and know that there’s probably an 80 percent chance that there’s probably something that will happen that’s out of your control. Having said that, a year ago, we were leading going to the white flag and got turned into the fence. I guess my thoughts where if we could just get a decent finish out of this thing, I’ll take it. I think it’s the first time we’ve finished in the top 20 at Daytona if my memory serves me correct. You have a lot of things going through your mind, Monday morning quarterbacking it, but in the heat of the battle, all you’re focusing on is what groove is Kyle [Busch] going to try to make work, and am I going to be able to block him, or are we all going to wreck? Those are the immediate thoughts going through my mind.

Lunkenheimer: How does that win at Daytona compare to some of your other Truck Series victories?

Sauter: Daytona is special just because of all the history behind the track, its place in NASCAR and the hype that it gets. A lot of it is justified because it is so hard to win there. Every race is hard to win — don’t get me wrong — but that one just seems to take an extra ten or 15 percent of everything going right all night long to be in position. Everybody in the draft is essentially an equal. I think that’s why so much emphasis gets put on Daytona. Aside from all the glamor being there and the history behind it all, is how everything has to go 100 percent right to win there, and it just doesn’t happen that often to a lot of people. It’s just a special win in a lot of ways. I’m partial to all of my wins—I can’t sit here and say that one means more than another. They’re all special — Martinsville was a big deal for me. That place is hard to win at. I have a hard time sitting down, having to figure out which one means more to me than others. The key is just trying to keep winning.

Lunkenheimer: Is there a weight lifted off of your shoulders starting out so strong at the beginning of the year, rather than having to climb your way back up the standings?

Sauter: I think so. My history over the past couple of years has been coming out of Daytona sitting around 25th in points. I can remember coming out of Daytona two years ago being 35th in points. Now we can sit there and focus on the rest of the season. There’s still some question marks on the schedule as far as the dirt race and road race, and you’ve got the Talladega race. I think the cool thing is to know that we’re sitting on top of the points. I know there’s a long way to go, and we have to do everything right all year long to be the champions. It sure as hell beats sitting there 25th in points, for sure.

Lunkenheimer: You mentioned Eldora — what were your thoughts when you found out it had been added to the schedule?

Sauter: I think a lot of guys had a reaction to it. I personally — nothing surprises me. When it was on the schedule, I was all good with it. I don’t really have any dirt background or dirt experience. I know that the ARCA cars raced on dirt and seemed to really like it. And Frank Kimmel is our teammate at ThorSport — he raced on dirt last year and actually won one of the dirt races. I think that’s going to help our effort as far as trying to get out of the box. I think there’s some things that I’ll have to do as the driver to get familiar with the dirt, whether it’s racing a street stock or something like that on dirt, somewhere up in the Midwest — hopefully this summer before we go racing. There’s going to be a lot of adjustment — there’s no question — and I think it’s exciting. I can’t imagine that it won’t be as much fun as it looks. Having said that, I just have to remember to race the race track all night and hopefully end up with a decent finish out of it.

Lunkenheimer: Let’s talk downtime. What have you, Cortney and the kids been doing during this extended break?

Sauter: I spent some time up at the shop in Sandusky — we tested last weekend on Friday and Saturday at Sandusky Speedway for Martinsville. We went home to Wisconsin for a few days there, caught a Brewers game there on Opening Day. Time just seems to fly by. I ran a late model race down in Myrtle Beach the weekend of March 16th. I just tried to keep myself busy and get as much driving and racing in that I could. I don’t think any of that stuff ever really hurts. It’s hard to believe it’s been five weeks, but here we go on a three in a row stretch before we get a couple weeks off after that. I feel good about where we’re at; I had fun the last couple weeks, but it’s time to get back to the racetrack and get back to work.

Lunkenheimer: I have just a couple of fun questions before we finish up here. First of all, what’s your favorite downtime activity when you’re not at the track?

Sauter: Late model racing — I don’t really have any hobbies but racing. If I’m not in Sandusky or at the racetrack racing, I’m usually at the shop or in the backyard working on a Super Late Model that I try to run four or five times a year. Other than chasing the kids around the house, I’m working on a race car.

Lunkenheimer: Do you have any “must have” race day foods?

Sauter: I can eat anything from peanut butter toast to bananas to a hot dog. I’m probably not the best role model as far as nutrition goes at the race track. I can eat anything and be happy with it.

Lunkenheimer: One last question: what is the strangest autograph request you’ve ever gotten?

Sauter: Something that’s not x-rated would probably be signing someone’s baby. Somebody actually asked me to sign their baby’s arm one time, and I was reluctant, asking are you sure? Are you really serious? Every now and then, you’ll get some strange requests like that. I honestly can’t even remember if I signed it or not—I probably would’ve felt too guilty doing that. There’s a lot of crazy things that people ask you to do.

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