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.”