Just prior to the start of the 2019 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season, Johnny Sauter was let go of his ride at GMS Racing in favor of Brett Moffitt. In the 11th hour, Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, and his longtime crew chief Joe Shear Jr. returned to ThorSport Racing to pilot the team’s No. 13 Ford.
When Sauter drove for Duke and Rhonda Thorson’s team from 2009-15, he and Shear won 10 races and were a regular threat for the championship. But last year, Sauter only won one race, coming early in the season at Dover International Speedway. He also took the checkered flag in first at Talladega Superspeedway, but the win was taken away after NASCAR ruled Sauter blocked Riley Herbst below the yellow line.
Sauter’s sixth-place finish in the point standings last year was the lowest the Wisconsin native had been since 2012. Meanwhile, his teammate Matt Crafton won his third championship — his other two also came when Sauter was with ThorSport.
But with more time to prepare for this season, things are already looking brighter for Sauter in 2020. He’s finished in the top 10 in both races thus far, including a runner-up performance last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — the only driver who beat him was defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
Sauter, who is fifth on the Truck Series all-time wins list, caught up with Frontstretch to discuss his expectations for 2020, his desire to get the Thorsons a championship, his short track schedule, the series’ return to Richmond Raceway, his thoughts on the yellow line rule (and rules in general) and being in Crafton’s shadow.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch.com: At this point last year, it seems like it wasn’t too soon before Daytona that the ThorSport announcement was made. How much better does it feel coming in having known what you’re going to race and being more comfortable with the team?
Johnny Sauter: For sure. There’s so many things you’re more comfortable with. Obviously, you’ve got history now — a little bit — with your guys and just the whole program. And even though it’s like going back home, there’s still a lot of things new to learn because it had been three or four years. I feel very comfortable with where we’re at right now, just with the trucks, the way we’ve got them prepared, the races that we’re going to. Yeah, it’s awesome.
Massie: I imagine it’s a lot easier for Joe Shear Jr. as well because he came in last second last year. I imagine that was pretty tough for him to get the trucks up to speed, right.
Sauter: Yeah, I mean honestly, the ThorSport stuff, it’s all been awesome. Last year was just a tough year. For me personally, I feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes that kind of got us behind the 8 ball. Just fluke things happen that, you know sometimes happen in racing that are out of your control. So luck is a part of this game whether people want to admit it or not. Yeah, I think the whole program, like I said, showing up, maybe looking for some things that I need to feel or I need, and we’ve worked on a lot of that stuff over the last year. Yeah, last year was kind of a whirlwind how it all came together last minute, but I’m very thankful that it did.
Massie: So in the grand scheme of things in your career, would you view last year negatively or positively?
Sauter: I think of it as a learning year for sure. You got to do some self-evaluating, you know honestly. Or at least I think you do. And say, yeah, by every standard or our standard of what we expect, it was not a good year. You can either dwell on the negatives or say, ‘Hey, what could I have done differently to make things better?’ I feel like I’ve done that a lot, and I know that the team does and things that they think that they could do better. I think that’s how you get better. Yeah, last year was a rough patch.
Massie: Well it seems like Ford has stepped up their support in the Truck Series this year. There’s more teams, obviously. Do you think that will help your program?
Sauter: The more, the merrier, especially if there’s technology being shared and all that. It’s a real plus to have — I think it’s nine Ford trucks in the field [at Daytona]. You want to see the manufacturer do well and to win. That’s always nice to have in your back pocket. But any more, technology is changing so fast, and the more trucks you have — if they’ll share — it expedites the learning curve. And that’s how you stay on top in this game.
Massie: You and Joe Shear Jr. have been together for what feels like forever. What is it about you two guys that clicks so well?
Sauter: Well, it has been forever. I think it’s very similar backgrounds, upbringings. Both of our dads were successful short track racers. You know, just similar mentalities. I feel like Joe has always been an innovative type of guy. Sometimes, that gets you in trouble. But you know he eats, breathes and sleeps this stuff. You can ask him what we ran for a setup 10 years ago, and he can pretty much rattle it off, 90% of it. And that’s kind of how I am. I can still remember what I ran for setups 20 years ago, but I can’t tell you what I ate for lunch yesterday.
Just similar backgrounds, and we’ve had a lot of success together. I appreciate a guy that’s all-in on racing. He just doesn’t have any other interest. I’m kind of the same way.
Massie: The Truck Series schedule is so much shorter than the other national touring series. So what do you do in your time away from the truck?
Sauter: I short track race as much as I can. Spend all my free time working on my late model stuff. That’s still in my heart. I can’t get away from that stuff. And obviously, having four kids keeps me pretty busy. They’re old enough now, they’re getting into sports like hockey and all that. I try to take them to school every day and just be a part of that. And if I’m not doing that, then I’m in Ohio at the truck shop. I want to win a lot of races for Duke and Rhonda, and I want to win a championship for them in the worst way. Pretty much just racing, that’s what I like.
Massie: What’s your late model schedule look like coming up?
Sauter: I’m going to start off at the Dells for the Icebreaker and then the Joe Shear Classic at Madison [International Speedway]. The Slinger Nationals, Dixieland 250. I’ll try to race as much as I can this year. I’m hoping to get to six, seven, eight shows and get it going.
Massie: I know last year Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he almost had you in a late model at Martinsville. Are you working to get into that race?
Sauter: Yeah, I’m just waiting to hear from him. The ball’s in his court. I told him we could do it even last year. And if that’s something he wants to pursue, that’d be great. I love Martinsville, it’s been a great racetrack. I’m trying to do something that I’ve never done. I’ve never driven a late model stock, so I think it would be kind of cool to have the challenge.
Massie: So pretty much if you’re going to do that race, it’s only for Dale Jr.?
Sauter: Oh yeah. I mean he was the one who called me on it. I was excited about it. It just didn’t work out. If it does, that would be awesome. If it doesn’t, I understand how that works, too.
Massie: The Truck Series is coming back to Richmond Raceway this year. You had a lot of success there in the Xfinity Series early in your career, including a win in 2003. How excited are you for that track to be back on the schedule?
Sauter: Yeah, I’m pumped. I feel like we need more tracks like that, honestly. I was thinking about that the other day, and it’s been what, 12, 13 years since I’ve raced there already. I’m sure the racetrack’s changed immensely. I always watch that race, even the weekends we’re not racing. That’s always the race that I tune into for Xfinity and Cup just because I love that racetrack. I’m looking forward to it, good short track racing. And the racetrack looks like it’s really wore out, it’s gonna be slick. So I think it’ll be fun.
Massie: Being the late model, short track kind of guy you are, are there any short tracks that you would consider adding to the Truck’s schedule that aren’t on there now?
Sauter: Oh yeah. There’s awesome short tracks all over this country that I feel like we could do a service to, and they could do a service to the Truck Series. But I don’t make those decisions. But there’s awesome short tracks all over the place.
Massie: Is there one that kind of tops the list that you think could actually handle the Truck Series?
Sauter: Well obviously, I’m a Midwestern guy, so I’m partial to some of the short tracks in Wisconsin. There’s absolutely some places there that could facilitate it. We go to Eldora [Speedway], and they facilitate it. So yeah, I think there’s short tracks all over. Even if they had to bring in temporary grandstands, whatever. But there’s a lot of economics to all that, and I don’t know how that works.
Massie: So last year, it appeared you won Talladega, but NASCAR ruled you blocked below the yellow line and took the win from you. Does that one still sting?
Sauter: Yeah, I mean, of course. You feel like you do everything right, and you’re in position to win the race. And your truck’s in one piece, and you essentially do win the race. Anytime that’s taken away, it stings.
But honestly, it’s the second time it’s happened to me, so — I’m more bummed for my guys, you know what I’m saying? They’re the ones that busted their tails, and bonus moneys and all that stuff, they miss out on all that. That’s at the heart of it all, you know. For myself, I’m a racer, I want to win of course. But whatever, it just wasn’t meant to be that day. I thought I did everything right, and I didn’t. So you just move on.
Massie: How would you like the yellow line rule to be?
Sauter: Well, in my humble opinion, there’s too many rules across the board, not just at Talladega or the yellow line rule. I think there’s just too many rules. But that’s just my opinion. I’m from probably an era that’s gone by, so I understand that, too.
You know, there’s a fine line there I guess. Last lap, you’re leading the race, you’re kind of a sitting duck, so you got to do what you got to do. But the rule is what it is. And honestly, at that time, I wasn’t even paying attention to the yellow line. I was just looking in the mirror trying to block. At 190 miles per hour and somebody’s got you hooked in the left rear quarter panel, it’s not just jerk the wheel and straighten it out. But people don’t understand that because they’ve never done it. So there’s no sense crying over spilled milk, right?
Massie: You were talking about how badly you want to get that championship trophy for the Thorsons. All three of Crafton’s championships have come while you were racing for them. Does that add to the fire at all?
Sauter: Well, there’s no question I make Matt Crafton a better racer. I’m just kidding. Yeah, I mean of course. You see your teammate having success. I think that’s what drives a lot of guys, their teammates.
And people say, ‘Oh, there’s no rivalry there.’ Well, then you’re not a competitive person. And I hear people say that stuff all the time, and I call BS. You’re as competitive with your teammates as you are everybody else, and when you have a teammate that’s having success, it drives you even harder. So, of course I want to win the championship for Duke and Rhonda. And I’m glad Matt’s doing what he’s doing, but I’d like to be able to do it, too.
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