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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Curious and Curiouser 

NASCAR’s Gander Outdoor Truck Series often provides the best racing of any given weekend’s slate. But if you go by the ratings and attendance at the truck events, the series seems to be teetering on the precipice of obscurity few envisioned when the series made its bombastic debut back in 1995. After all, the three top-selling vehicles in America are the Ford F Series, the Chevrolet Silverado and the Ram (no longer technically Dodges, nod, nod, wink, wink). As of late, the Rams have actually taken the second-place slot on that best-selling list from Chevrolet, a position it had held since pickup trucks had AM radios and rubber floor mats rather than carpets, back in the days when a Texaco road map was considered a navigation system. Oddly enough, Rams don’t compete in the Truck Series, while the Toyota Tundras that often dominate the truck races are ranked 14th on the American market best-sellers lists. So much for win on Sunday, sell on Monday, I suppose. 

Or in this weekend’s case, so much for win in the waning hours of Saturday sell on Monday. For the life of me, I can’t understand how scheduling a race to start after 10 p.m. ET is supposed to boost ratings. Once again, it seems there was a scheduling conflict caused by Fox Sports’ coverage of women’s World Cup soccer in this case a match between Trinidad and Tobago … which to the best of my recollection are the same place. I’m not sure how that works. 

But even prior to allowing a race to be scheduled that will end around the witching hour, it seemed the powers that be were making some awfully curious decisions when it came to promoting the series. Many of you will recall that Greg Biffle won the truck race at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago despite a two-year-plus hiatus from NASCAR racing and a 15-year break from racing pickup trucks. The win was a compelling enough story it actually got some coverage on the mainstream media news sites and in print, a highly unusual state of affairs for the NGOTs. 

One of the reasons that the Texas race raised a few eyebrows was a $50,000 bonus in prize money provided by Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World (and thus the Gander Outdoors stores which Camping World acquired).

Winning $50,000 is some serious money to Truck Series participants (and to your humble scribe). NASCAR hasn’t released prize money figures for four or five years now, but in 2015 (the last year officials statistics were released), Erik Jones won the November truck race at TMS and pocketed a check for $62,424. 

The way the Triple Truck Challenge bonus program was structured might have left Biffle in contention for an additional $150,000 bonus had he won at Iowa Speedway last week. Had Biffle been able to win at Iowa, he’d have been looking at a potential $500,000 bonus at World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) last Saturday (June 22). But that was putting the cart before the horse.

Biffle’s win at Texas was part of a one-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports. The team already had four teams entered for the Iowa race, which would have either left Biffle scrambling to find a seat or KBM scrambling to prepare a fifth entry. But it wasn’t meant to be. Even while the FOX and ABC news sites were featuring the story of Biffle’s time traveler win, NASCAR announced that since Biffle wasn’t entered for the Iowa event by the scheduled deadline, he wouldn’t be eligible to compete for the bonus money.

Sure, he could have shown up with another team and tried to qualify for the race (just about a gimme given the state of the series right now), but he wouldn’t have been eligible for the big bonus check. And to a potential sponsor contemplating backing Biffle, the fact the bonus wasn’t in play meant that their brightly painted billboard on four tires would get a lot less TV time. I found it curious throughout the whole discussion of Biffle’s eligibility for the prize money that I never heard Lemonis himself weigh in on the matter. Surely, some rules considering a postmark could have been bent to keep the promotion viable and in the headlines (newer fans to the sport probably don’t know how much Bill Elliott’s claiming the Winston Million in 1985 for winning Daytona, Talladega and Darlington thrust the sport to the attention of new fans and the media). I suppose Lemonis, who has clashed with NASCAR officialdom previously on social issues, could have said even if NASCAR didn’t recognize Biffle’s entry at being on time, he would write the check(s) if Biffle won the Iowa race himself.

Saturday night, Brett Moffitt was in line for the $150,000 bonus. That was unexpected because Moffitt never took the checkered flag in first at Iowa. In fact, he was in the garage area drinking a beer by his own account when the announcement was made that Ross Chastain’s truck had failed post-race inspection, which cost Chastain the win and handed it to Moffitt. 

There was a bit of a hullabaloo about Chastain losing that win (which would almost certainly have propelled him into the NASCAR post-season playoffs). NASCAR seldom did it previously, but drivers of vehicles found to be illegal after an event have in fact had wins taken away previously (the last time I can recall it happened to Dale Jarrett at the Michigan Busch series race in 1995 handing the win to Mark Martin). But prior to the start of the season, NASCAR warned teams and drivers that if their cars failed post-race inspection, they were at risk of having a win taken away.

Most fans applauded the policy change, thinking (or hoping) the clause would cost one of the super-teams that tend to dominate the various series a win and help to explain why they were so dominant in the first place. But Chastain was one of the “good guys.” It wasn’t supposed to happen to him. For whatever reason, Chastain has connected with the fans with his back story of being an “aw-shucks” back-home watermelon farmer, who has been bouncing team-to-team and even series-to-series looking for a ride in which he could showcase his talent, driving mainly for underfunded outfits unlikely to claim the pot-metal and big checks. 

It happens. In order for the sport to be fair, the likable drivers, as well as the despicable ones, have to compete in legal entries to level the playing field — to the extent it can ever be level when some teams arrive at the track with tri-axle dump trucks full of big bills, and others are skimming a nearby wishing well pond for pocket change to make the tolls at the race track exit. Yes, it was highly curious that somehow that same truck passed pre-race inspection, after which it was impounded (as in not worked on) prior to the race, but was found to be illegal afterwards (and not by just a little, either).

But it’s my checkered past with wrenching on cars and other motor vehicles that things tend to get out of adjustment in a way that hurts rather than enhances the way it runs. Windshield wipers only quit working when it’s raining. Heater cores only go back in the dead of winter. I’ve never had a valve cover bolt work itself tighter to eliminate an oil leak on the headers. Left to random fate, things tend to break themselves, not repair themselves. The notion that the No. 44 truck somehow lowered its suspension just a bit with no help from an outside agent goes right in the same category of pumpkins turning into a princess’s carriage. Perhaps it’s because I’m running in better social circles (unlikely), but I find myself dealing with a greater percentage of non-NASCAR fans in daily life than previously, perhaps because the number of folks who identify as race fans is a lot lower these days. One thing I’ve never been able to explain to non-fans is how a driver’s car could be found illegal after a race but he got to keep the win anyway. 

And in one of life’s odd little coincidences, in the end it didn’t matter anyway, did it? Saturday night at Gateway, Chastain and his team used contrary pit strategy to take the lead late in the race. For a second straight week, Chastain crossed the finish line first, but this time his truck sailed through post-race inspection without issue. As it stands, written in the book of Kings (in this case Stephen of Maine, not David and Solomon of Jerusalem), “If life teaches anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question.”

Few people would choose “nice guy” as a descriptor of Johnny Sauter. He is in fact a likable guy, with a proven track record of being a straight shooter and a very talented race car (or in his case race truck) driver. If nothing else, you have to admire his persistence. Sauter has been competing in the Truck Series since 2003 (he left the series in 2007 for a less than successful stab at Cup racing with Gene Haas, and has made a few other attempts at the Cup or Xfinity that didn’t play out either). There’s something to be said for finding your comfort level and remaining within it.

Sauter won the 2016 truck title and was runner-up in the series in 2011 and 2017 (as well as a third-place finish in the series points, and he’s finished fourth in the year end standings a remarkable four times). His most recent win in the trucks was scored at Dover in May. Having already won a race, Satuer is all but a shoo-in for this year’s playoffs in the Truck Series, but he didn’t enhance that effort any with his conduct at Iowa a couple weeks back. 

Sometimes two drivers just don’t get along. Usually they can talk things out. Occasionally it comes to blows in the garage area. In a few notable instances, they try to settle things on the track. Sauter felt Austin Hill wasn’t giving him any respect when they were racing. When Hill hit him again at Iowa, Sauter decided he’d had enough. Sauter got into Hill knocking him out of the way. That’s a pretty standard operating procedure in stock car racing. As the late Dale Earnhardt used to say (frequently), “I hit him. I didn’t wreck him. If I’d had wanted him to be wrecked then he’d have been wrecked, wouldn’t he?” Hill was incensed and put the chrome horn (sadly no longer chrome on NASCAR race vehicles) to Sauter’s rear quarter panel knocking him sideways. 

CHEEK: SAUTER, HILL TANGLE AT IOWA

That’s when the situation jumped the tracks. The caution was displayed for Sauter’s slide. While the race was under caution, Sauter ran down Hill, knocked him sideways, then rammed him in the driver’s side door number. I’m a firm believer in the “Boys Have At It” attitude. After all, this is stock car racing and not lawn croquet. But there are a couple things wrong with this picture. Any driver should do his damnedest to avoid striking another competitor in the driver’s side door. The risk of serious injury or worse is unacceptably high. Occasional in a violent wreck, a driver is going to accidentally ram someone in the left side numbers, but to do it on purpose is unconscionable. Secondly, when a caution flies the game changes as first responders and wrecker crews are released to be on the track. Driving around wide open, or causing a secondary incident, shows a disrespect for those individuals’ health, well-being and lives. 

In the moment, NASCAR decided to park Sauter. His truck was wrecked anyway, and it is doubtful if he’d continued somehow that he would have made up many more positions. Ironically, Hill drove on to a 12th-place finish and scored a total of 32 points for his efforts. 

Late in the week, NASCAR decided that Sauter’s infraction warranted an additional penalty of a one-race suspension, forcing the No. 13 driver to sit out Saturday’s race (Myatt Snider replaced Sauter in the No. 13 truck for the weekend and finished a credible 10th place at Gateway).

Some fans (my guess is mainly newer ones) felt NASCAR was too lenient. They felt that Sauter should have been penalized further, right up to excluding him from the post-season playoffs despite the fact Sauter already won at Dover, which should have all but locked him into the championship round. Despite having been benched on Saturday night, Sauter is still 10th in the championship standings. But the rules state that to be eligible for the playoffs, a driver has to compete in all the events in the series whose title he is chasing (or get a waiver for one or more events like Kyle Busch did back in 2015, when he broke a foot and a leg in an Xfinity wreck at the Daytona season opener; that year Busch missed eleven Cup series races but was still able to earn the Cup series title).

I don’t agree with the idea that Sauter should have been excluded from the title hunt. Firstly, with Busch having won five of this year’s 11 truck races, there are  only three eligible drivers with wins to compete for the title as it is (ironically, one of them is Hill, who won at Daytona). Secondly, NASCAR is a team sport. To exclude the entire No. 13 team from running for the championship because of the actions of their driver wouldn’t make sense. 

You have to admire how Sauter handled the penalties handed down to him. He was clearly irritated but accepting of the ruling. And so with a weekend off thanks to the penalty, Sauter decided to race, naturally enough, competing at Dells Raceway Park, a 1/3-mile paved short track in Wisconsin. He wound up finishing second.

Sauter might not always be a nice guy, but he’s still one hell of a driver. 

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Good stuff, but just to clarify on the preempting issue. The soccer game that was on was a US Men’s National Team game against Trinidad and Tobago in the Gold Cup tournament.

  2. Avatar

    The Sauter penalty is in line with NASCAR’s previously issued disciplines.
    The Truck series, I am not sure why fans do not show for the races since it is one where they get their monies worth out of the racing most of the time.
    However, it is expensive to attend races and unless you are local being at the track for all races that encompass 3 days is a stretch monetarily for most people even now when the economy is “booming”.

    I believe that NASCAR needs to have the cars look more like the street versions and with govt. regs mandating certain MPG numbers sedans will maintain the sleekness of design. As such NASCAR likely would not make the change to the windshield.
    It would be nice if they could however figure out a way to make the cars less aero-dependent not more.

  3. Avatar

    I do watch a lot of the truck races (unless Kyle Busch is running…. why waste the time when you know he is going to win with the most experience and best equipment). If they would get rid of Waltrip, I’d watch more. My friend and I always joke that there is a wreck as soon as they start the engines and another during the warm up laps.

  4. Avatar

    Two Points.

    1. For over 20 years people have known that the boxier, less aerodynamic shape of the trucks contribute to the better racing. I can remember Ned Jarret talking about the angle of the truck windshields & wondering why NASCAR didn’t change the cup car windshields to match the angle of the truck’s. If NASCAR is so clueless that they haven’t picked up on this in 20+ years, there is no hope for them.

    2. All of the truck races are on somewhat obscure cable channels. I like the truck series, but I can’t watch it because I don’t have cable. More and more people are cancelling their subscriptions too. If NASCAR offered a streaming service like MLBtv, I would buy a subscription for the truck series. I know that they have a TV contract, but they can make changes when the contract is up. It is a good product. I think that there is a market for it if they will promote it and develop a way to offer it to a broader audience. Offering it to a broader audience should also include running the short tracks in the Carolinas and Virginia like the Busch Series did in the 1990s.

  5. Avatar

    I think that the argument that Johnny Sauter’s actions put track workers and even Austin Hill at risk are grossly overstated. Spinning the guy out at race speed put the driver at greater risk and there were no safety personnel even close to the incident. I’m a fan of neither driver, and the penalty for hitting people under caution was appropriate, but let’s not get overly dramatic about the risk to Mr Hill. If Sauter wanted to hurt the guy he’d have waited until Talladega or Daytona.

  6. Avatar

    Not only was the Truck race started at 10 pm because of soccer, but it had to be tape-delayed soccer. 10PM EDT is 4AM local time in France, where the Women’s World Cup is being held.