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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.”

Bristol Motor Speedway to give Food City 500 tickets to victims of November wildfires

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Thousands of people continue to rebuild their lives following last November’s devastating wildfires in east Tennessee.

Many lost everything, including their homes, cars, businesses and possessions, particularly in the Gatlinburg and Sevierville areas. Many victims were left with just the clothes they were wearing at the time they fled the fires, which charred over 17,000 acres, claimed 14 lives and injured nearly 200.

The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway are reaching out to give those impacted by the fires a few hours of enjoyment and try to bring some smiles back on their faces.

The track announced Monday that, in conjunction with the Dollywood Foundation’s “My People Fund,” it will give away four tickets per family for the April 23 Food City 500 NASCAR Cup race at BMS to area residents impacted by the fires.

“We wanted to do something nice for these folks that hopefully will help brighten their day,” said Jerry Caldwell, BMS executive vice president and general manager. “It’s incredible to see the outpouring of support from the region and we wanted to do our part to show our neighbors that we care.

“Gatlinburg and Sevier County hold a special place in the hearts of all NASCAR fans and especially all of us here at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

The “My People Fund” is a charitable outreach of singer/actress Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation. It provides those impacted by the fires up to $1,000 per month for up to six months to help victims get back on their feet.

The wildfires literally reached the doorstep of Parton’s Dollywood amusement park, but caused only minimal damage.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

Ryan: Enough with the hand-wringing on retaliation, here are your clearly drawn lines

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The most important line in NASCAR lately doesn’t involve when the checkered flag waves and definitively determines the winner of a race.

No, this line is much hazier: The apparently nebulous border between being regarded a well-heeled, responsible citizen of NASCAR Nation who still gets a point across and (gasp!) an irresponsible scofflaw who indiscriminately commits revenge in the least noble of ways.

In the wake of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon escaping punishment for attempting to handle their own administering of justice, it seems everyone is searching for a line on where the line is in NASCAR …

Or if it exists at all.

These are desperate times, kids!

(Especially with the Cup Series headed to Martinsville Speedway this weekend.)

But fear not for those worried about the future of the republic in Charlotte and Daytona. I’ve got a handy chart that delineates the transgressions that will earn scorn.

Ready? Let’s draw some lines!

If you intentionally wreck a guy (out of the lead) while nine laps down, that’s bad.

Expect a two-race suspension or worse.

Also, feel free to avoid poking Brian France on Twitter about it.

If you intentionally wreck a guy while racing for position, that’s not as bad, particularly if it’s well-disguised.

It might not earn you a punishment, and if it does, it probably won’t be so drastic.

If you are traveling roughly 50 mph and lightly pin another car against the wall and cause so much “damage”, that car still finishes on the lead lap, that is mostly OK the first time (but probably not the second).

It helps if you also finish well behind that car (which ruined your shot at winning with a rookie mistake).

But there will be some slight punishment: Be prepared to spend some quality NASCAR couch time with Steve O’Donnell and your favorite series director discussing the merits of getting angry under caution.

If you swing at a guy but don’t hit him flush and then fall down and wind up the only guy who is bleedingyou only will have to live with your injured pride.

If you swing and hurt someone or break their bones, you will face some sort of penalty based on the severity of the injury.

You know, as you would for any sort of physical assault in the real world.

If you scream at another guy and get held back by your team in a shoving match without much violence that goes viral, your sponsor might give you a bonus for the millions of extra impressions. But don’t expect any residuals from the tracks that incessantly use those highlights to sell tickets.

Good news, though! You won’t be fined as you would have been 11 years ago.

If you walk onto a hot track and angrily gesture at a driver who wrecked you, be prepared to write a five-figure check and then justifiably wonder about how that money is being spent.

Now we know where the lines are. That wasn’t hard!

Kidding aside, there is only one line that truly needs delineation, and it applies not just to NASCAR but to everything in life.

Every action has consequences. Choose your actions wisely.

A few other leftovers from the past week and weekend at Auto Club Speedway:

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Courtesy of some salient points made by NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, driver fraternization and prerace introductions were a hot topic on social media.

For some, it prompted the memory of a heated exchange between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin after a dustup in a 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

“You don’t have to actually hit me,” Patrick said. “I like you, Denny. You’re my friend.”

“I know, you’re my friend,” Hamlin said. “I get it.”

There’s no removing the friendships formed in the motorhome lot from modern-day NASCAR, where most of the drivers in the Cup series are raising families on the road, and teams want to simplify and streamline their lives outside the car.

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But how much of a Chinese wall needs to be built between the personal interactions of the motorhome lot and the professional workings of the garage?

At the very least, Letarte’s idea is worthy of being considered by tracks. There’s enough time for socialization throughout the course of a race weekend, and it probably is best done outside the view of the public.

When drivers walk out of their motorhome lot and underneath signs such as this one on the left at Texas Motor Speedway (“The greatest drivers and mechanics in the world work here!”), everyone’s gloves should go on, and their guards should go up.

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–Monster Energy is based in Corona, California, about a 30-minute drive to Auto Club Speedway, and the new series title sponsor made its presence felt at the 2-mile oval.

Monster erected a major hospitality display in the infield, and Clint Bowyer was among the drivers who took a tour of company headquarters.

“We had a ton of fun over there,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “The brass there was eager to meet us and bench race, which is always fun with any organization you meet.

“When the brass (wants) your perspective on the job they’re doing and what they can do to further enhance the impact, it’s a breath of fresh air. We definitely had that. I do think you’ll continue to see a bigger splash as we go on.”

There were some misgivings that Monster might have made too big a splash, however, with a drivers meeting entrance at Fontana that resembled the sort of club found in nearby Hollywood (minus the midday sunshine).

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The University of South Carolina’s first Final Four run will have much resonance in NASCAR, which has strong connections to the Palmetto State. NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bud Moore and Cotton Owens hail from South Carolina.

Late Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR PR executive Jim Hunter played football and baseball at South Carolina, and NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett was offered a golf scholarship there.

Among those active in NASCAR who hail from South Carolina: Kerry Tharp, Darlington Raceway president; Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler (and an active Gamecocks fan on Twitter); Jason Ratcliff (crew chief for Matt Kenseth);

Donnie Wingo (crew chief for Landon Cassill); Steve Addington (longtime crew chief);Michael Nelson (vice president of operations at Team Penske); Jeremy Clements (Xfinity driver for family’s Spartanburg-based team).

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–It might have been prompted by being the leadoff to his media availability Friday, but the answer had the sort of edge unaccustomed from Jimmie Johnson.

“People are questioning your performance this year. Are you guys at a point where you could get that seventh win here?” asked Kickin’ The Tires.net editor Jerry Jordan (in a blunt but fair question).

“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean, come on,” Johnson immediately responded with a slight laugh, before telling Jordan, “I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever.  I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run.

“We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to.  Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point.  Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”

Of course, those turned out to be famous last words on a lost weekend in which Johnson crashed in practice, didn’t make a qualifying lap in a backup car and finished a nondescript 21st.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is right that it’s too early to ask too many questions about his lack of results. But his answer made it natural to wonder whether some questions have crossed his mind, too.

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Buried in the multimillion-dollar countersuit Kurt Busch filed last Friday against his former management agency was this nugget: When he entered into a 2010 contract extension with Sports Management Network, the firm received 4% of Busch’s base salary at Penske, or $250,000.

Kudos to colleague Dustin Long (who has more than two decades of experience combing through legal documents with these sorts of details) for noting that means Busch’s base salary was $6.25 million at Penske. Such driver compensation rarely comes to light.

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The best racing of the weekend was in the Xfinity race, which featured a stirring duel for the lead between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and then another fierce battle at the front in heavy traffic between winner Kyle Larson and Logano (who rallied three times from deep in the pack).

Yes, all those drivers are full-time Cup regulars. There are some who will make the case that should disqualify the Xfinity race from being evaluated as stellar, but it’s impossible to deny it delivered the highest entertainment value (regardless of who was racing the cars).

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–NASCAR’s Snapchat account Sunday was filled with Hollywood types pledging their allegiance to stock cars, and roughly four dozen celebrities were in the pits for the Auto Club 400.

This isn’t new for Fontana, which has a long history of trying to attract the beautiful people from the west side of Los Angeles (with mixed results). But it’s good to see NASCAR actively leveraging their attendance into something tangible (even if in the most ephemeral of social media mediums).

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Martinsville Speedway

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With NASCAR’s “West Coast Swing” over, the sport returns east this weekend with a visit to Martinsville Speedway.

While the Xfinity Series takes a week off, the Camping World Truck Series returns for its first race since March 4 at Atlanta.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Truck Series.

Cup Series – STP 500

There are 38 cars on the entry lists for the first Cup race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. A full field would be 40 cars. The last four races have had 39 entries.

Jimmie Johnson won in the Cup Series’ last visit to the half-mile track last October. Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the STP 500. Busch led 352 of 500 laps to earn his first Cup win at the short track.

Click here for the full entry list.

Truck Series – Alpha Energy Solutions 250

There are 32 entries on the Truck Series’ preliminary entry list. Four entries, the No. 12, the No. 63, the No. 83 and No. 99 do not have drivers attached yet.

Chase Elliott is the only Cup Series driver in the field. He will drive the No. 23 for GMS Racing. It’s his second Truck race of the year.

Justin Haley will make his first Truck start of the year driving the No. 24 for GMS Racing. Joe Nemechek makes his third start of the year in the No. 87.

Johnny Sauter won the Truck Series’ last Martinsville visit in October. Busch is the defending winner of this race. Busch started second and led 123 of 255 laps on the way to the victory.

Click here for the full entry list.

NASCAR will examine angle of inside wall Matt Kenseth hit

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A NASCAR executive said series officials will work with Auto Club Speedway officials to see if there is a way to alter the angle of the inside wall Matt Kenseth hit in Sunday’s Cup race.

After contact from behind, Kenseth slid down the track in Turn 2 and through the skid path, hitting the SAFER barrier on the inside wall.

Kenseth hit a portion of the wall that was angled toward the track. Safety equipment was stationed behind that wall.

“I am OK, but I wouldn’t say I was as OK as I was last week,’’ Kenseth radioed his team after the incident, referring to his hard hit at Phoenix when a tire went down and he slammed into the SAFER barrier.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” about Kenseth’s incident and the angle that Kenseth’s car hit.

“We’ll download all the data, in this case from the incident data recorder, we’ll talk to Matt, we will inspect the car for sure with all of our safety engineers and kind of combine all that data and look at the angle and the speed and scrub and look at all that data to make sure that we have the best possible outcome,’’ O’Donnell said.

“One of the things you pointed out was the angle of the wall. It’s positioned that way for the safety equipment, but are there tweaks we can make? We’ve done that numerous times in terms of you see a crash that you never thought would happen and it kind of opens some eyes and (you) say, ‘OK is there a better way to potentially angle this wall?’

“So that is something we’ll work with the speedway and our safety engineers and the race team to look at, thankful that everything worked out. There was a SAFER barrier, Matt got out and walked away, and as you guys said, you never want to see that angle, and if we can prevent that, we certainly will.’’

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