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After 15 years, Johnny Sauter puts the pieces together for first NASCAR title

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Johnny Sauter believes “timing is everything.”

On the eve of the Camping World Truck Series championship race, the 38-year-old driver acknowledged that his expiration date as a competitive driver was closing in.

“I personally feel like, you know, I’m running out of chances,” Sauter said. “That obviously weighs in the back of my mind a little bit. But at the end of the day, I’m going to give 100 percent. If it works out, great.”

Sauter’s first NASCAR start was in a Xfinity Series race on Sept. 7, 2001 at Richmond International Raceway.

Fifteen years later and after 487 starts in all three of its national series, it finally worked out for Sauter.

The native of Necedah, Wisconsin, finished third in the Ford EcoBoost 20o at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claimed his first NASCAR championship.

“It’s been a long time, had some successful years along the way, had some years that you kind of want to forget about, I guess,” said Sauter, who has been running full-time in the Truck Series for eight years.

“It’s very hard to get all the pieces of the puzzle put together,” Sauter said. “It’s not just the driver.”

The 2001 champion of the ASA National Tour cited another former driver in the series.

Jimmie Johnson, perfect example,” Sauter said of the six-time Sprint Cup champion. “Did okay in ASA, did okay in the Busch Series, but when he got his guys and got with Hendrick and all that, they came alive; know what I’m saying? It’s all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Sometimes it works out, and I’ve always said, timing is everything.”

The puzzle pieces started coming together for Sauter last year when the long-time ThortSport Racing driver had his first phone conversation with Mike Beam, the competition director for GMS Racing.

“My wife was in the hospital having a baby and I was in the parking deck talking to Mike on the phone,” Sauter recalled. “The killer instincts that Mike has, all he says is I want to win and we need to kick their butts, and it’s very motivating, for me anyway. I like to hear that kind of talk.”

Sauter heard more that he liked when he flew to Las Vegas last September to meet with team’s owners, which included Maury Gallagher.

“The Gallagher family brought me to their house and cooked me a wonderful meal and said this is our goals and this is what we want to do,” Sauter said. “You know, when I went and checked out the shop and saw their ultimate vision for where they wanted GMS Racing to be, I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of.”

It also helped that the trucks sitting in the GMS Racing shop had the Chevrolet emblem on them. Since 2012, Sauter had driven the Toyotas at ThortSport.

“I think it was very important for me to get back in a Chevrolet,” Sauter said. “I felt very strongly about that, being a GM kid. But you know, people is a big ingredient. There’s just a lot of little things. I could sit here all night and talk about it, but it’s just the whole package.”

That package delivered an early gift for the team, as Sauter won the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway to all but clinch a spot in the Chase for the first-year team in the No. 21.

Then Sauter won two of the three races in the Round of 6 to ensure he would have his best shot at a NASCAR title since he finished second in the Truck standings in 2011.

The timing was right and pieces were finally in place when Sauter passed his former teammate, two-time champion Matt Crafton, after the final restart with 20 laps to go.

“I don’t think it’s completely sank in quite yet,” Sauter said. “My dad (Jim Sauter) had raced for 40 years. I think that’s what Michael Waltrip said. He can remember every Sauter in NASCAR for over 40 years. So it’s just cool to grow up in a racing family, go to so many racetracks throughout the Midwest, and to be a champion in one of the top three NASCAR divisions, that’s just something that I hope the family can enjoy.”

Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in must-win scenario at Kansas

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Going into Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are likely to be among the four drivers eliminated from playoff contention.

Stenhouse is 22 points back from the final transfer spot and McMurray is 29 points back.

Both drivers talked with NASCAR America before the race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) about being in a must-win scenario to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Watch the above video for the interviews.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. His first oval win since Kansas Speedway a year ago validates the team’s 1.5-mile speed in the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Mark it down, he wins and advances to the next round to continue his quest for a second title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. keeps his foot on the throat of the competition and gets his sixth win of the year at a 1.5-mile track.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson is starting 13th but expect him to get to the top five within the first 20-30 laps. He needs a strong run to give him momentum heading into the Round of 8 and he gets it Sunday.

Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – James “Jim” Watson, a fabricator for Furniture Row Racing, died Saturday night after suffering a heart attack, the team stated Sunday morning. Watson was 55.

A native of Greenfield, Wisconsin, Watson had been a member of Furniture Row Racing since February. He worked for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-15 and spent last season with HScott Motorsports. He was a long-time racer, competing in dirt late models and asphalt super late models throughout Southeast Wisconsin.

Watson was with the team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

He is survived by wife Laurie and daughter Brittany.

“On behalf of Furniture Row Racing we extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family,” said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”

Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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