Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnny Sauter prevented deja vu from striking all over again as he scrambled for a sixth-place finish with his No. 98 Nextant Aerospace / Curb Records Toyota Tundra in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series' North Carolina Education Lottery 200.
A year ago Sauter's championship hopes took a real torpedo at Charlotte when the Wisconsin native was intentionally wrecked and finished 28th. A week ago, at Kansas Speedway Sauter was driven into an accident and the resultant Did Not Finish knocked him from first to fifth in the 2014 standings.
He and crew chief Dennis Connor decided enough was enough coming to Charlotte, they took a measured approach to the one-day event and in the end -- even though a top-three finish was a definite possibility at the point of the final restart with 13 laps remaining -- they decided discretion was the smarter play."That's not the way I race and it's not the way I want to race," Sauter said. "It's just not the way my team races."But the situation dictated what we had to do in this race so we worked on our Nextant / Curb Tundra throughout the day to get it raceable -- and I'm happy that Dennis and the guys did that and we proved our point near the end of the race."
For the second consecutive race -- and the only two this season in which Keystone Light Pole Qualifying has been run -- Sauter had a Tundra capable of reaching the final pole round. But after a wild rush in which virtually the entire remaining field of 12 trucks sat on pit road until the final seconds of the session, in a last-lap drafting dash Sauter earned the seventh starting spot.
Friday's compressed schedule created a crazy one-day race that resulted from four hours of Thursday practice being rained-out. The teams practiced for two hours Friday morning -- in conditions that were radically different from the night conditions they raced under at the drastically temperature-sensitive Charlotte oval.
While the first half of the race featured longer green-flag runs, with only two caution periods, the final 67 laps had seven yellows. Despite that, Connor and Sauter -- along with their ThorSport Racing teammates Matt Crafton and Jeb Burton -- had worked themselves into being in position to all be in the top five for the race's end game. At that 13-to-go restart, Crafton, Sauter and Burton lined up behind eventual winner Kyle Busch in second, third and fourth respectively. But when the green flag flew, Sauter got caught in a three-wild melee on the frontstretch and fell back to eighth.From there, he battled back a couple spots and when Burton was forced into a laps-down truck and crashed on the frontstretch after Busch had taken the white flag, the race was over."We started this race with the clear directive that we had to finish this race with this truck without it getting torn-up," Connor said. "So we ran a careful, premeditated race all night long."I think dropping back as Johnny did on that last restart was just a case of doing the right thing -- not necessarily what we'd prefer to do."The best news is Connor and Sauter's crew loaded a completely intact Tundra into the hauler that, after some additional analysis, will be good-to-go with Texas, another lightning-fast 1.5-mile venue where Sauter's had great success, coming up in two races.
"We had something that caused the truck not to run down the straightaways and we don't really know what that was," Connor said. "Whether it was (aerodynamic) drag-related or motor-related or some kind of chassis situation, it wasn't a handling-related issue because the truck was good through the corners all night long.
"So we're going to the chassis dyno Monday to try and figure out what was wrong. It might have been a case of us being a little over-cautious, but we did what we needed to do because having a piece we can tune on going forward and not having to re-start from scratch is absolutely critical."
After entering the race in the fifth position in the standings, Sauter came out of the weekend fourth, though he went from 15 points behind championship leader Crafton to 19 behind going to the next race, in two weekends.
Sauter gets his next chance to go for a Truck Series win on May 30 at Dover International Speedway, as part of a NASCAR tripleheader with the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series.