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In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined to win nine of 13 points-paying races this season. In the Camping World Truck Series, Johnny Sauter is showing his own dominance in his third season with GMS Racing.
Sauter, aged 40, was no stranger to NASCAR when he finally joined the Truck Series full-time for the 2009 season. At that point, he already had 70 Cup and 196 XFINITY Series starts, including five full-time efforts from 2002 through 2006.
When 2009 came around, Sauter joined Matt Crafton at ThorSport Racing to pilot the No. 13 Chevrolet with backing from Curb Records. The season-opening Daytona race didn’t end well for the driver who had 11 prior starts in the Truck Series as he crashed out with a 27th-place finish right around the halfway point in the event. But his new ride had “potential.”
“I couldn’t be happier with the way we ran at Daytona,” Sauter told Frontstretch shortly after the 2009 season began. “We got to lead laps and we were running good. Obviously, we didn’t get the finish we wanted.
“I think that we can go out and realistically win some races. Wherever the points shake out at the end of the year, that’s fine – for me, I put a bigger emphasis on winning races than anything else, and I feel like we have the potential to do that, and that’s pretty exciting.”
Despite starting on the pole at Texas Motor Speedway in June that year, Sauter’s best finish through 15 races came in the form of a fifth at Dover. In fact, it was his lone top five and one of only five top 10s in that period.
Enter Joe Shear Jr., who took over as crew chief for Jason Overstreet. In the remaining 10 races on the schedule, Sauter finished outside the top 15 just once – 16fh at Martinsville – and scored six top fives, including a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Additionally, the pairing moved from 14th in the championship standings to sixth by season’s end.
Shear remained atop the pit box for Sauter until mid-2013 when he resigned from ThorSport Racing unexpectedly just a few days before the series’ first visit to Eldora Speedway.
“Joe has been my crew chief for a long time and my friend for even longer,” Sauter said of Shear’s departure. “I guess there were some disagreements over the direction of the team, and he felt like it was time for him to move on.”
When pressed for details, Sauter wouldn’t comment further, though Dave Moody reported that the disagreement stemmed from an inability to hire quality people, “debates over the correct technological path for the team and an inability to address issues with their over-the-wall pit crew.” Interestingly enough, 2013 was the second season after ThorSport made the jump from Chevrolet to Toyota, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that may have also played a role in Shear’s departure.
Without Shear serving as his crew chief, Sauter visited Victory Lane just twice over two-and-a-half seasons, which included a winless 2015. Though he did have 16 top 10s that year, he never finished better than third and wasn’t able to move higher than fourth in the championship standings.
Late during the 2015 season, Sauter and GMS Racing announced the veteran driver would join the virtually unknown organization beginning in 2016.
“This opportunity to race with GMS Racing in 2016 is incredible. They’ve quickly built an impressive, race-winning organization in a short period of time and have only gotten stronger as the season has progressed,” Sauter told Catchfence.com. “I can’t wait for Speedweeks at Daytona to get working with everyone and am excited to rejoin the Chevrolet family as well. GMS Racing brings really fast trucks to the racetrack, and I can’t wait to run up front and compete for race wins with them.”
I remember being skeptical about the move. After all, ThorSport was a proven, championship-winning organization that had raced in the Truck Series for ages and had done so in the right way, slowly expanded its fleet, rather than diving in head-first and falling flat.”
But Sauter and crew chief Marcus Richmond quickly quelled that skepticism with a surprise victory at Daytona to open the season. A big wreck with just seven laps remaining set up a two-lap dash to the finish and took out about half the field in the process. And when the green flag waved, Sauter restarted alongside Ryan Truex, who had held the top spot for 13 of the prior 14 laps.
As Truex pulled ahead, Sauter dropped back to the rear of the top five and appeared to be on his way to a decent finish to start his tenure with GMS. But a big push from Christopher Bell just after the white flag flew gave Sauter the momentum he needed to pull alongside, and eventually ahead of Truex, as another Big One unfolded behind the leaders, a wreck included Bell’s rolling crash to begin his rookie season.
The official margin of victory for Sauter was under caution, but he was already a winner in his first race behind the wheel of the No. 21 Chevrolet for GMS. The question remained, however, about whether he could put together a strong season with an organization that had yet to prove itself. After all, plate racing is so incredibly unpredictable that just about anyone who can survive until the end probably has a shot at the win.
Finishes of 28th and 32nd at Atlanta and Martinsville, respectively, dropped Sauter from the point lead to 18th in the championship standings just three races into the year, and suddenly it looked like the No. 21 team had its fair share of work ahead of it. A 16th-place result at Kansas after the extended break early in the season showed a glimmer of hope for Sauter, and he quickly followed that run up by a fourth at Dover and a third at Charlotte.
That’s when Shear returned atop the pit box, just ahead of the first of two trips to Texas Motor Speedway. In that first race with Shear back in the role of crew chief, Sauter started on the pole, led nine laps and finished third. And after that race, he finished outside the top 10 just once in a 13th-place result at Eldora Speedway.
Fast forward to the Truck Series’ first playoffs when Sauter solidified his spot in the Championship 4 with back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas. That, combined with a third-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway helped Sauter win his first career championship.
Of course, Sauter re-signed with GMS for the 2017 season, something that came of little surprise since he’d just won three races and the series title.
“A lot of people asked if I really thought the move to GMS [Racing] would result in a championship. After talking with Mike Beam and Maury [Gallagher], I truly believed in their goals for the team and felt like it was the right move if I wanted to win a title,” said Sauter. “The progress this team made throughout the season was incredible. It’s a relief to finally be able to say I’m a champion, but there’s also that feeling that it’s supposed to be that way. The reason we compete every weekend is to be the best so anything less would be a disappointment.”
The 2017 season proved to be an even better year statistically. Sauter earned four wins, one more than his championship-winning season, 13 top fives and 19 top 10s. Additionally, he led more laps and scored a better average finishing position. But despite the improvement in performance, Sauter fell short to Bell for the championship.
Fast forward to this year and Sauter is already having another incredible season. He started the year with another victory at Daytona and backed it up with finishes of third and second at Atlanta and Las Vegas, respectively. In fact, Sauter has finished inside the top five in all but one race this season, including a win in the series’ most recent race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Obviously the adjustments Joe (Shear, crew chief) and the guys made before the race just really brought it to life that extra little bit,” Sauter said of his Charlotte victory. This is probably…this IS the biggest win of my career. This is a challenging place. I’ve had a lot of good runs here and a lot of bad runs here, so this is a big one. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t want to win in our backyard. I’m just really proud of these guys tonight.”
For Sauter, it’s not unexpected that he’s run so well, especially given that he has a combined seven wins over his two previous seasons with the organization.
“For me obviously being with an organization for a third year, I’m just really comfortable with what we’ve got going on,” he explained when asked about his early season success. “GMS is growing as an organization every year and we just keep getting better stuff out of our fab shop. This is a big deal for GMS Fabrication and all the guys. We do all of our own bodies, our own chassis, everything in-house. This is a testament to over 100 peoples’ hard work all run by Mr. Beam. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive it.”
Despite holding a commanding 59-point lead in the standings, it’s certainly not time to hand Sauter a second Truck Series championship since we’re only seven races into the season. Given the way he’s raced so far, however, it looks like anyone hoping to win the title is going to have to go through the veteran driver first.