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Johnny Sauter grabbed the win in Friday night’s NextEra Energy 250 at Daytona International Speedway following a thrilling night of Camping World Truck Series competition. In his first race for GMS Racing and the No. 21 Chevrolet, Sauter started from the outside pole and led 12 circuits to claim his second Daytona triumph in 176 career Truck starts. It was a case of right place, right time where he was able to eke in front when it counted.
“That last restart was very, very hairy,” Sauter said. “We lost momentum, initially when we got into turn 1. I thought ‘Well, we’re going to end up finishing fifth or sixth here.’ Then, the next thing I know the [No.] 4 truck come barreling back and started pushing and pushing, hitting and banging sideways. The thing picked up about 500 RPMs instantly and here we came.”
As it turned out, Sauter’s trip to victory lane was not the only thing that got a little messy. As the field approached the white flag for the scheduled 100-lap distance, Sauter and Ryan Truex were battling for the top spot before contact sparked out of the tri-oval. Timothy Peters spun low while Christopher Bell pounded the outside wall left-front first before catching air and tumbling down into the entrance of turn 1.
“The 4 was just constantly sideways,” said third-place finisher Parker Kligerman. “Kudos to Chris Bell for holding onto that as long as he did, but then eventually he just lost it. I saw him turning the 17, and all I saw was the under side of his truck, and then you know something happened, you look in the mirror and you see a bunch of smoke.”
Bell, who climbed from his devastated No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota following the wreck, was later transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and released early Saturday morning.
John Hunter Nemechek was right in the middle of the accident, believing he drove underneath the flying Bell machine.
“I don’t know how close it actually was,” Nemechek said. “I know he [Bell] was pretty high up in the air. It felt like I drove underneath him. I wouldn’t say it’s scary, you’re just trying to make it through, hope for the best and trying to make it through.”
The last-lap mayhem dramatically impacted the final running order. True underdog stories came to life as Brandon Brown, Travis Kvapil and Tyler Young survived the crash to finish fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively.
“You always come there with a hope and dream,” Brown said. ” You daydream on the way down here, I wonder what it would be like to win and run up front with these big guys and we did it. I was just envisioning us coming out here, not trying to make any enemies, learn how to race in the draft because I had never run in the draft before I raced this race tonight.”
That type of inexperience was spread through a 32-truck field. But the opening 93 laps were fairly clean. The race saw just one multi-truck collision as Spencer Gallagher, Cody Coughlin and Bell collided while slowing to enter pit lane.
“There’s really just nowhere to go,” said Townley. “I was trying to stay off the guy in front of me and just kept getting hammered. At that point, there was really nothing to do.”
Daniel Suarez was also caught up in the melee in his No. 51 Toyota, leading to a 28th-place result.
“I was just trying to make the third lane work,” Suarez said. “And was actually moving really good and then I hit some kind of debris, pretty hard for me actually and I killed my left corner. After that, I wasn’t able to push as hard. Somebody wrecked in front of me and was just trying to slow down. There was nowhere to go.”
Rookie Abreu was making just his third Truck Series start when he was piled into the late melee.
“I just seen the [No.] 33 come across my nose,” he said. “I went really high and I thought I was going to be clear and then the 33 shot across.”
Yet of all the drivers in the scary pileup, the most thankful of the bunch was Theriault who crashed into the turn 3 wall after leading 31 laps for Brad Keselowski Racing. For Theriault, it was better than the last time he hit a wall following his Las Vegas crash last October which left him with a 10-percent compression fracture in his back.
“Thank God for SAFER barriers,” he said. “If anything, that’s what I take away from it. Just really glad we’ve continued to make safety improvements like that. I’m very grateful for it. It was definitely softer than Vegas.”
That thinned the field and provided an opening for Truex, impressive after sidelined for most of the 2015 season without a ride. Despite losing his pushed down the stretch his No. 81 Toyota wound up runner-up followed by Kligerman, both of whom were hoping good results led to a full season’s worth of racing.
“This morning we were worried about making the race and tonight, we almost won it, ” Truex said. “So, my hat’s off to these guys and it just feels good to be back, running up front and I think we’re going to get one before the year is out and battle for a championship.”
Other young drivers also stood out, including the sterling crop of Truck rookies. Starting from the pole, Grant Enfinger impressed in his first series start since 2012, leading four laps before the crash took him out of contention.
Teammate and race winner Sauter gave high praise to the defending ARCA Racing series champion.
“He did a phenomenal job tonight,” Sauter said. “I hate that we got shuffled the way we did on the backstretch there. I think he had to lift and I just had to fill the hole.
“He was awesome. In fact, if things would have played out going into the end of the race, I was going to push him to the win.”
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