HOMESTEAD, Fla. – After 23 races, 10 months and over 4,300 miles, Johnny Sauter claimed his long-awaited first-career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship with a third-place finish in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sauter’s title comes in his eighth full-time season, one year after he left his longtime seat at ThorSport Racing to move to GMS Racing ahead of the 2016 season.
The change in scenery was a decision that many onlookers questioned, but Sauter stood behind from the very beginning.
“I think a lot of people questioned the move I made, but to be honest with you, the first time I met the Gallagher family and heard what they were all about … what they were trying to build and establish … I wanted to be a part of it and it was a pretty simple choice for me. To get back into a Chevrolet was big for me as well, because I grew up in a GM (General Motors) family, but I’d say this tells you why I made the move I did.”
“I’m so proud of the effort by this team. We’re going to do everything in our power to represent Camping World and NASCAR the right way. This is huge for us.”
Sauter started the deepest of the four championship contenders on Friday night, having to come from 19th, but he utilized a secret weapon – the same truck he won at Texas Motor Speedway from 16th two races prior – to move his way into contention.
Though two-time series champion Matt Crafton held the points lead by running in the top five for the majority of the 134-lap, winner-take-all affair, Sauter was steadfast all night long and used a sub-13 second pit stop to rocket forward following a caution with 25 laps to go for Patrick Staropoli’s third spin of the night.
“We had flawless execution on pit road all night long,” Sauter circled after the race. “(Crew chief) Joe (Shear Jr.) made great adjustments to where I could just hang on … because I’m not a high line guy. When I found some pretty good grip around the bottom, I knew we’d have a shot.”
On the race’s final restart five laps later, Sauter took that shot, blitzing from fourth to a near-fight for the lead and the win after giving then-leader Tyler Reddick a shove in the outside lane as Crafton fought back on the bottom.
With 17 laps to go, Sauter saw his chances at claiming the owner’s title for GMS slip away as William Byron charged past both he and Crafton to move into second, but he knew that his prize was just ahead of him.
A lap later, with 16 circuits to go, Sauter powered around Crafton for the provisional championship lead and never gave up third on the race track the rest of the way – holding off a furious charge by both teammate Kyle Larson and Daniel Hemric’s Ford in the final laps before being able to bask in the glory of a championship celebration.
The title was the first for GMS Racing in just their third season of Truck competition, and marked the first driver’s title for Chevrolet since James Buescher’s 2012 championship.
Sauter’s season saw three wins, 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s in 23 races, leading just 130 laps along the way but using a nearly-unparalleled run of consistency to top the series in the end.
It started with a bang, when the Wisconsin native collected his second-career win at Daytona Int’l Speedway to become the first driver locked into the new-for-2016 Camping World Truck Series Chase.
Once the Chase began, though, Sauter caught fire. He used a trio of top-10 finishes to ease through the Round of 8 and then tallied back-to-back wins at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway to cement his place in the Championship 4.
On Friday night, Sauter proved why he deserved to be the champion, closing the season with his fourth-straight top-three finish en route to the big hardware, a title he coveted ever since his debut on the circuit.
Yet Sauter was quick to point out that his run in the postseason wasn’t just about him, but rather the team he believed in enough to take a leap of faith on joining.
“It’s not just (about) me, but it’s the whole crew at GMS Racing,” Sauter explained. “We qualified bad today and I was really kinda worried about it. I felt good about our truck in race trim, but you have those doubts. I’m just really proud of this whole organization, though. Thanks to Maury Gallagher, the Gallagher family … everyone that gave me this opportunity. This is amazing.”
The leap of faith was, indeed, amazing.
And Friday night, it paid off with the biggest prize of Sauter’s career.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as both the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series and the co-track announcer at Millbridge Speedway.
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