Four hours after he'd left Daytona International Speedway's hallowed Victory Lane Friday night, NextEra Energy Resources 250 winner Johnny Sauter was still having a hard time accepting what he'd accomplished.
"I won at Daytona," Sauter muttered as he stood outside his ThorSport Racing hauler, while his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota was being taken apart by NASCAR Camping World Truck Series officials in post-race technical inspection. "I just can't believe it -- still can't believe it."
Twelve hours later Sauter had absorbed some pretty solid proof that he had equaled a feat set by his dad, Wisconsin short-track racing legend Jim Sauter, in 1978. Jim Sauter won the Daytona ARCA 200 the same year Johnny was born, the 10th of 12 siblings. Thirty-five years later, Johnny Sauter was eating up the aftermath of his seventh career Truck Series victory -- though by late Saturday morning he'd yet to speak to his dad.
"I'm just ecstatic to be in Victory Lane -- happy to have a Sauter back in Victory Lane at Daytona," Johnny said Friday night. "This is cool for me personally."
Sauter's nirvana was the result of a caution flag that came out not quite a half-lap after he'd taken the white flag to begin lap 100. Sauter, who led the final 16 laps of the race after being pushed to the front by teammate Todd Bodine's No. 13 Mattei Air Compressors Toyota, was in the process of trying to figure out how to hold off Kyle Busch for the win. The yellow flag made it a moot point.
Proving just how cool it was for a bunch of other people, as well, sometime overnight Friday, Sauter's phone locked-down -- its voice mail prompt alerting callers that "this mailbox is full..." Sauter -- a passionate racer who might be one of the most misunderstood souls in the Truck Series', or any NASCAR garage -- retrieved his phone shortly after leaving the Daytona media center and when he turned it on, found way more than 100 text messages from fans, friends and competitors.
That certainly helped the realization of what he'd accomplished -- which included Toyota's 100th career victory at the beginning of its 10th season of NCWTS competition and the manufacturer's seventh consecutive win at Daytona -- sink in.
"It took me three hours to reply to all of those (text) messages," Sauter said Saturday morning as he sought a laundromat to clean up some Carolina Nut Co. gear and a pair of jeans for his trip home. "But it was really neat, and really nice that so many people took the time to reach out and offer congratulations."
After pausing to take a call from listed team owner Mike Curb, Sauter reflected on the difference a year could make in his team's NCWTS title hopes. In 2012, Sauter was leading the Truck race while coming to the first of four white flags that were necessitated by accidents, when he was turned from behind and swallowed up in a wreck that demolished more than 10 trucks. His season never recovered.
Ironically, Friday night with Busch ending up second and with ThorSport teammates Matt Crafton finishing ninth in his Slim Jim / Menards Toyota and Bodine 11th -- Busch has been beaten by a ThorSport driver three of the last six years at Daytona, as Bodine beat Busch to win the races in 2008-2009, though Bodine was driving for Germain Racing for both of those.
Friday night, Bodine and Sauter had combined to lead 23 of the first 98 last laps, until a restart with five laps remaining. Sauter, who was leading from Bodine and Busch, chose the bottom lane, Bodine's truck took off badly and, when a four-truck accident broke out after Sauter had taken the white flag, the race was over.
"We really work hard," crew chief Joe Shear Jr. said. "We don't only come down here for the speed, we really work hard on our drafting package and our handling and being really stable in the race. We can kind of go anywhere we want.
"This race was way different than what we thought it was going to be and even different from the past. If you got hooked-up with the right people, you could make the outside groove work, it just didn't seem like it came-in (Friday) night. The bottom groove was where you had to be, we just kind of worked ourself to that point, got us in the right position and there we were."
The series is off until its second race, at Martinsville Speedway on April 6. Needless to say, Sauter can't wait.
"The Truck Series has been a tough row to hoe for me, here," Sauter said of his six-point lead over former four-time series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. and Justin Lofton. "Every year we've been looking at being 25th to 35th in points, depending where we finished, going into the season and we came close to winning the championship two years ago.
"Hopefully we can get back to championship form. I think we can. I know the guys are working hard. We're going to Martinsville next, which is a great racetrack for us -- we've won there. So I'm digging right now where we're sitting, that's for sure."