2008 Rides: No. 70 Haas CNC Racing Chevrolet (nine races); No. 08 E&M Motorsports Dodge (nine races); No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford (one race – DNQ)
2008 Primary Sponsors: Haas Automation/Atlas Copco/Hunt Brothers Pizza (No. 70); FUBAR (No. 08); Air Force (No. 21)
2008 Owners: Joe Custer/Gene Haas (No. 70); John Carter (No. 08); the Wood Family (Glen, Len, Eddie, Kim) (No. 21)
2008 Crew Chiefs: Dave Skog (No. 70); Mark Tutor/Tony Furr (No. 08); Gene Nead (No. 21)
Stats: 9 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 9 DNQs, 53rd in points
Best Finish: 20th – Loudon (Sept.)
High Point: There wasn’t much to write home about for Johnny Sauter this year, but there’s two things he can still take away from 2008 – however small those achievements might have been. At Loudon in September, Sauter briefly recaptured the magic he had with the No. 70 Haas CNC team during the 2007 Cup season. Despite starting shotgun on the field, the Wisconsin driver showed patience and persistence in moving through traffic on what may be the hardest track to pass on the circuit. Staying out of trouble, he came home 20th – on the lead lap – for his best finish of the year and just one of a handful of top 20s the No. 70 car would achieve all season.
Sauter can also look back on Labor Day weekend with pride. Running with a team and equipment that was horrifically undermanned and underpowered compared to his competitors, he somehow squeaked into the California starting lineup in 43rd starting spot – the only time he’d qualify for a race with the No. 08 E&M Motorsports Dodge. In fact, it was the only time the small independent team would make the field all season despite attempting over half the races. While Sauter finished 42nd with mechanical failure, the experience was still a small victory that reminded him he still has the drive necessary to succeed at racing’s top level.
Low Point: Without question, Las Vegas in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. At the time, Sauter was a free agent looking for a place to call home, and the Woods were desperately hoping to crack the Top 35 in owner points. After failing to make the Daytona 500 with Bill Elliott, a 26th-place finish at California left hope that a “locked-in” qualifying spot could still be achieved for the team after Bristol. But Sauter pushed it too hard during his hot laps and wrecked the No. 21 Ford, shutting them out of the field at Vegas and effectively ending their Top-35 hopes. The look of disappointment on Sauter’s face – and the faces of the Wood Brothers crew – has stuck with me since then as one of the lasting memories of the 2008 season. Both driver and team knew they had wasted an opportunity, and neither one seemed to get on track during the remainder of 2008.
Summary: After being dumped from the No. 70 Chevrolet at the end of 2007, Sauter was out of options at the Sprint Cup level. As a result, he hoped to regroup with a full-time Nationwide Series ride instead in 2008, driving for James Finch. But the chemistry never worked out, and after just five races Sauter had left that ride and was on the outside looking in on NASCAR’s top-three series. An ill-timed Cup start with the Wood Brothers (mentioned above) put Sauter in sorry shape heading into late spring; it seemed like his NASCAR career was suddenly stuck in neutral.
But then, there came an opportunity. In April, Jeremy Mayfield parted ways with Haas CNC, and Sauter’s old team came crawling back to ask if he’d fill in for a substitute role. It was a chance to rekindle the magic that led to two top-10 finishes in 2007; but to the chagrin of everyone involved, it turns out the chemistry left the building once Sauter was fired last November. Despite driving for the team at races where he had the strongest finishes in ’07, Sauter struggled mightily in the car, scoring just one top-30 finish in eight starts while failing to qualify at Darlington in May. With that kind of track record, it’s no surprise Tony Stewart never considered him for a full-time job when he bought into the team for the 2009 season.
Dealt a bad hand, Sauter was forced to do what he could simply to keep himself visible on the NASCAR circuit. He made nine attempts with low-budget E&M Motorsports, often running with such poor equipment he’d be up to six mph slower than anyone else who attempted to qualify. On the Nationwide Series side, he took jobs with start-and-park operations, pulling the car into the garage after just a handful of laps in hope a strong qualifying run was enough to spark interest from someone else. It was a sad state of affairs for Sauter, especially when you consider just four years ago he was Richard Childress’s pick for his third car in the Cup Series.
Off-Track News: After such a rough 2008, at least Sauter’s personal life is very much in order. In December of 2007, he married longtime girlfriend and PR guru Cortney Owen.
2009 Outlook: After struggles in NASCAR’s top-two divisions, the Camping World Truck Series is where Sauter will look to rebuild his career in 2009. He’ll pilot the No. 13 Thorsport Racing Chevrolet, replacing Shelby Howard on a team that has tremendous upside potential. This will be Sauter’s first full season driving trucks; he has one top-five and two top-10 finishes in 11 career starts. Hoping to better those numbers significantly in 2009, he can only hope a strong season on that side of the fence will force Cup teams to give him one more look.
Stat of the Year: Sauter qualified shotgun on the field – 43rd – for five of his nine Cup starts in 2008.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2007 Grade: D+
2008 Grade: D-