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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.”

Crew chief explains order to Kyle Busch to do ‘doughnuts to the right’

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Crew chief Adam Stevens explained what he meant when he told Kyle Busch on the radio to do “doughnuts to the right” after Busch’s victory in Saturday night’s All-Star Race.

Stevens provided an explanation Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.’’

“That had nothing to do with any damage being received,’’ Stevens said. “That was just an effort to make sure that we could meet the (Laser Inspection Station) tolerances after the races. Doughnuts and burnouts are very hard on the car. It puts a lot of stress into all the suspension components. If we go out there and do the doughnuts to the left the same way that we’ve been turning all day, it’s going to eat into more of that tolerance.

“The only car out there doing doughnuts is the winner. We’re going to use up all of our tolerance doing doughnuts potentially. If we have that opportunity to do doughnuts, it just makes sense to do them the other direction so we’re not stressing the components in that manner.’’

Busch’s car passed inspection after the race.

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Slugger Labbe exits Richard Childress Racing as Austin Dillon gets crew chief Justin Alexander

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Richard Childress Racing made multiple crew chief changes Monday that included the departure of longtime employee Richard “Slugger” Labbe.

Justin Alexander was named crew chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in replacing Labbe, who is leaving RCR to pursue “other opportunities,” according to the team.

Alexander, who previously worked as the crew chief for Paul Menard, was promoted from RCR’s No. 2 in the Xfinity Series. Randall Burnett, who recently left AJ Allmendinger’s team, will take over Alexander’s job in the Xfinity Series.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

Here’s the release from the team:

Richard Childress Racing Announces Competition Changes to its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Programs

Justin Alexander to take over No. 3 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Role;

Randall Burnett to take over No. 2 XFINITY Series Crew Chief Position

WELCOME, N.C. (May 22, 2017) – Richard Childress Racing has made a change in crew chiefs for its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series programs, effective immediately.

Justin Alexander, who has served as the crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet for RCR and earned two wins last season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, will assume crew chief responsibilities for the No. 3 Dow/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet SS team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with driver Austin Dillon. Alexander holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to RCR, Alexander served in various engineering roles with Hendrick Motorsports. Alexander’s first race in his new role will be for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, replacing Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe is leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.

Randall Burnett, who previously served as a crew chief for RCR’s technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will assume a new role as crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series beginning at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27. Burnett holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte. Prior to JTG Daugherty Racing, he spent 10 years as an engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Red Horse Racing suspends operations

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Red Horse Racing, which has competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2005, has suspended operations.

The organization, which reached the championship race last year with Timothy Peters, had 16 career victories. The team laid off 30 employees along with Peters and driver Brett Moffitt, a team official told NBC Sports. The team has kept a core group of employees as it seeks funding to resume operations.

Peters finished fifth in Friday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Moffitt placed 18th. Peters is sixth in the points and Moffitt is 10th. Neither truck has had a primary sponsor listed in all five races this season. 

Peters won at least one race for the organization from 2009-15. In 2012, the organization finished second in the owner points with four drivers scoring wins: Peters (two wins), Todd Bodine (one), John King (one) and Parker Kligerman (one).

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NASCAR executive defends rules package after lackluster All-Star Race

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After an All-Star race that featured three lead changes in 70 laps, a senior NASCAR executive defended the rules package but conceded that the option tire “didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that one race isn’t going to lead to significant rule changes.

“I think we’ve got to keep it in context,’’ O’Donnell said Monday. “I find it ironic that you can go from one week of everyone saying this is the greatest rules package and then you walk into one race with a bit of a different format (and opinions not as high). We feel still really bullish on the rules package we have, the work we’ve done with the industry to get where we’re at. Certainly you want every race to be the best it possibly can be.

“We’ve got to look at the facts and the facts are a lot of different organizations winning this year, the (manufacturers) having an ability to win, Kyle (Busch) his first win ever (in Cup) at Charlotte, which is surprising to me, and a lot of young drivers really putting their names out there competing out front. Really like where we’re at right now.

“Our job is to look at the whole year. If I reacted to every comment you had on Twitter, it would be very different. It’s one of those things we’ve got to look at the overall picture, we’ve got to take the input from everybody in the industry and we do that. I think from a rules package standpoint we continue to see the sport moving in the right direction in terms of what we’re seeing in competitiveness from different organizations. That’s really how we judge it from an overall standpoint and not just one race.’’

Heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, there have been eight different winners in the first 11 races. There have been at least eight different winners in the first 11 races in three of the last four years.

Among organizations, seven different teams have scored victories this season: Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Four organizations had won a race in the first 11 events last year and in 2015.

In the five races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season — Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and the All-Star Race — lead changes are down compared to the same events last year. There have been 63 lead changes in those five events this year compared to 94 in those same events a year ago and 99 two years ago.

The three lead changes in the All-Star race were the fewest since 2007, although Saturday’s race had the fewest laps (70) since that 2007 race, which was 80 laps.

Still, the hope was that there could be plenty of cars moving forward and backward with the use of a second tire compound, a softer compound. The goal was for the tire to be a few tenths quicker at the onset but wear more quickly than the regular tire.

“Goodyear delivered on exactly what we had asked,’’ O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We wanted three to four-tenths on a tire and by the practice times and the early part of the race we saw that. Kudos to Goodyear. I think what you saw Saturday night was really the difference probably in the car versus the tire and maybe a need to go even further if you were going to pursue that avenue in terms of difference in speed. That’s something we could look at for the future. Obviously you guys saw what I saw, it didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Asked if the option tire is something still on the table for future events, O’Donnell said: “I think so. I think you look at what may be the impact versus the car. I think the bigger thing is, when you look at tires in general, continuing to focus on rain tire, what should be our priority. There’s talk, I don’t want to tip the hand, but way down the future could you ever run Martinsville if the track was damp because Goodyear is able to, in terms of the speed, put something together.

“It’s a balance for us of where do we put their focus. Obviously they’re capable of doing all things. I think something we’d look at All-Star for sure, not sure in terms of a points race.’’

Another question was about the splitter after Erik Jones’ bid for the lead in the final laps of the Monster Energy Open was foiled when he ran below the apron and through grass on the frontstretch. He damaged his splitter in the incident.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was critical of the splitter on Twitter.

O’Donnell defended the splitter’s purpose on the car.

“Why we have it, I think everybody, including the drivers and the industry wanted to look at going toward the lower downforce package,’’ O’Donnell said. “That’s part of the package. It’s part of what we worked on with the (manufacturers). We’re actually very happy with the product we’ve had.

“If you look back to Kansas, one of the better mile-and-a-half races we’ve had. It’s always interesting with one incident and everybody jumps on, ‘Hey, why do we have this on the car?’ Certainly something down the road you can always look at, but it’s part of the overall aerodynamics of the car. It all fits in.

“For now, we continue to like the direction of lower downforce and going to continue down that and see if there are certain tweaks we can make. We absolutely would do that but that’s where we’re at today.’’

O’Donnell also said that the 2018 schedule is expected to be released this week.

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