Johnny Sauter leaned heavily Saturday night on his successful NASCAR Camping World Truck Series legacy at Gateway Motorsports Park in the Drivin' For Linemen 200 and the result was a fourth-place finish for his No. 98 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff / Curb Records Toyota Tundra plus the lead in the Truck Series championship.
Sauter had two previous top-five starts and an average finish of 2.5 in his only two NCWTS races at the unique, 1.25-mile oval outside St. Louis. But even though he and his ThorSport Racing crew were never able to completely dial a "tight" condition out of their verdant green Tundra, they never gave up.That effort gave Sauter a fourth-place finish behind winner Darrell Wallace Jr. and enabled Sauter to leapfrog ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton and leave Gateway with a 10-point edge in the standings.
Crafton came into the weekend with an 11-point championship lead over Sauter that evaporated when a flat tire on lap 123 put him into the wall and out of the race in 26th.Retaking the championship lead for the first time in five races was far from easy. Sauter struggled through two practice sessions before finally ending the 90-minute final practice in the eighth position.
In Keystone Light Pole Qualifying, Sauter was eliminated from the pole round for the first time in four attempts this season and lined up 13th for the 160-lap race.
"We struggled with a tight condition pretty much all through practice and never really got it out of our Smokey Mountain Tundra -- I really can't explain that," Sauter told Jerry Bonkowski on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio's 'The Backstretch.' "But we caught a caution just right (in the race). We were coming down pit road when the caution came out during the green flag stops (at about lap 66) and I just kept going.
"That ended up being the right call (because) it enabled me to make a pit stop under caution, and we gained some track position, which was key (Saturday) night. We were able to make some pretty big adjustments -- track bar, spring rubbers, wedge, air pressure...
Once Sauter made it into the top five on that first pit stop he never fell lower than seventh the rest of the night. He took advantage of some late cautions and rough driving by some of his competitors to clear the way to the point lead.
"All in all, it was a decent night for us," Sauter said. "I just could not get going on restarts -- it wasn't turning the way I needed it to, which is something we struggled with all weekend. Nonetheless, it was a solid night for us, and we'll take it."
Sauter, who races his own short-track late model cars on some of his "off" weekends, was happiest that one of the Truck Series' traditional venues was back in the series.
"It was cool to get back to the St. Louis atmosphere and it was great to see a good crowd out here," Sauter said. "Gateway is one of those places where you get into a rhythm, deep into a run and you just kind of make laps."
It was special that his jump to the championship lead came on a track that Sauter -- with three top-five finishes in his only three Gateway starts -- truly loves. And new owner Curtis Francois had a decent turnout for his "shot in the dark" of bringing the Truck Series back to Gateway for the first time in four years.
"I'm a short-track guy and I'll be the first one to admit that I love short-track racing," Sauter said. "Even though Gateway's a mile-and-a-quarter it races like a short track and I think every competitor you talk to would tell you the same thing. When I heard (Gateway) was coming back on the schedule, I was ecstatic because I knew it was another place I could mark on the calendar to come and capitalize and have a good run.
"You think about all the short tracks that (the Truck Series) has lost -- Milwaukee and Pikes Peak and ORP (O'Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis)... Memphis -- all these great little racetracks. And then we lost Gateway and New Hampshire but we've got both of them back this year, so there's nobody happier about that than I am."
The Series races on the "Magic Mile" at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 20.
In the owners' championship Sauter's No. 98 team is now 11 points behind the leader, Kyle Busch Motorsports' No. 51 while Crafton's No. 88 team is 21 points behind, in third.