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With nearly 500 national NASCAR starts behind him, Johnny Sauter is a grizzled veteran of the sport.
“I feel like I’ve seen, heard and done it all,” he said. “Nothing would surprise me in the least.”
Instead, he’s left it up to critics to raise their eyebrows. That’s why, in his mind, Sauter’s first year with GMS Racing has gone as planned for the 38-year-old, who comes into Friday eying his first series title in eight seasons driving in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
While some might have bristled at the decision for Sauter to join an unproven, newer organization on this level – especially after years driving for title contender ThorSport – he was confident in the move all along.
“Am I surprised by the speed? No,” Sauter said Thursday. “I feel like that is why I made the move – to ultimately win races and a championship. Having said that, things are progressing the way I thought they would. There are just too many good people in the GMS organization. The plan is to do it the right way.”
They’re off to a strong start. Sauter, who enters Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200 tied for the title with Christopher Bell, Timothy Peters and Matt Crafton, advanced to the finals in the first-ever Championship 4 for the Truck Series. Like his rivals, Sauter earned his spot in this round of the Chase with a second-place finish and two wins in the last three races, leading to the most momentum among any of the four drivers remaining. It’s a reality he’s tried to downplay with the title race close at hand.
“We’ve all watched [the Chase] unfold in the Cup Series over the last few years,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of anything that’s going to be as nail-biting as this, that’s for sure.”
In other words, he doesn’t see himself as having an edge over anyone else.
“This sport is very humbling,” he said. “You can have all the momentum in the world, you can have everything going your way, you can win two of the last three races in the final round. But Friday night, anything can happen.
“I don’t ever consider myself the favorite. Anything can happen. We’ve seen it time and time again in the history of running for championships. I feel really comfortable with where we are as an organization going into this race. To say I’m a favorite, that would not be doing ourselves a service.”
Sauter’s emergence has come with a shocking downfall for one of the best drivers in the Truck Series all season. The series witnessed one of its most shocking moments last week at Phoenix, when William Byron, the winningest driver of 2016, blew a motor from the race lead before being eliminated from the Championship 4.
Even then, Sauter, who nonetheless has earned more points than Byron this season, wasn’t as shocked as most of NASCAR nation, saying it simply “wasn’t meant to be” for them.
“It doesn’t change my mentality at all,” he said. “I’ve heard it a lot this week that you should feel relieved that the No. 9 truck isn’t in it. And I’m like, ‘Well, why? There are still three other competitors who run just as well.’”
Among the trio of drivers lining up alongside Sauter in the season finale are two fellow veterans in Peters and Crafton, men who combine for 612 Truck Series starts. Having a couple familiar faces to battle on Friday night, Sauter is at ease, knowing he’s in good hands both inside the truck and out.
“Ultimately, the veteran guys, through the course of the year, have raced differently than some of the younger guys,” he said. “Maybe a little smarter. That just comes with experience, taking care of your equipment, things like that.”
That confidence is the one portion of Sauter’s personality you can always count on, a trait that’s served him well as GMS continues to grows into its role as a top-tier Truck Series operation. Friday night is now the ultimate test to see where it stands against the series’ best: ThorSport Racing, Red Horse Racing and the Toyota behemoth of Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“I know [the No. 21 team] went through the truck with a fine-tooth comb,” he said. “It’s a truck we used a couple weeks ago at Texas. I was at the shop Monday and Tuesday this week and they were there working late.”
The long hours also came with an idea to switch things up. The crew hopes a different Allegiant Air-sponsored paint scheme this week will be the capper on what’s been a better-than-expected Chase. Can the team that started its pairing by winning Daytona International Speedway close out the season with a championship?
“We have a new paint scheme on it this week,” Sauter teased. “We’re going old school a little bit.”
Hoping to put the “school” in old school in the winner-takes-all shootout this weekend, Sauter has the experience, mindset and the reputation to put up quite the fight.
About the author
Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.
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