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Truck Series stunner: Johnny Sauter, GMS Racing split, effective immediately

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With just over one month to go before the start of the 2019 Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, GMS Racing announced Wednesday it has parted ways with veteran driver Johnny Sauter.

The move is effective immediately, the team said in a media release.

There was no reason given for the sudden split between both sides. The media release added, “future plans regarding the driver of the No. 21 team will be forthcoming.”

Sauter becomes the second Truck Series champion in the last three seasons to be without a team. Also still looking for a ride for 2019 is last season’s champion, Brett Moffitt, although several reports already have Moffitt replacing Sauter at GMS Racing.

While appearing on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody Wednesday afternoon, Sauter said he was informed by GMS around Noon ET on Wednesday that he was being released and then alluded to Moffitt potentially replacing him. Here are some of Sauter’s comments:

* On reports of Moffitt replacing him: “If he’s bringing something, it’s more than I’m bringing. Let’s just leave it at that. I don’t pay to race. If I had that kind of money, I’d be racing something else probably. … I had actually heard this rumor about being ousted out of that truck a month ago. I asked some questions and nothing ever was mentioned about it. Yeah, it’s late in the game, Daytona is a month away, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do about it. …. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s an expensive sport. Owners need money not just from sponsors today, but drivers as well.”

* On his three-year tenure at GMS: “GMS has been a great place, we accomplished a lot of things. If they don’t need me, you don’t need to be there. Like my dad always said, if you’re hand ain’t broke, you’ll never go hungry. So, I’ll figure out something to do.”

* Where does he go from here? “What’s next for me? I don’t have a clue. Rides are pretty scarce, rides that you want to drive. We’ll just have to see what shakes out. … It’s one of them deals where I’m not going to drive junk. If an opportunity doesn’t present itself, I don’t have to do it.”

Sauter said he has already spoken to one team about a ride, but did not reveal which team or the nature of the conversations: “I’ve reached out to one guy and that’s about it. … I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to drive good stuff and bad stuff. I’m not going to just drive junk. … I’m not above calling anybody, but once they hear you’re not driving anything, if they need you, they’ll call you. I’m not going to pester people or bother them because I know I wouldn’t want to be bothered.”

Sauter came to GMS Racing after a long and successful tenure at ThorSport Racing. When Moody asked if there was a possibility to return there, Sauter said, “If Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) would have me, of course I’d do it in a heartbeat. They have their four teams and four drivers and I’m sure, a month away from Daytona, they probably have their plans figured out. … Duke and Rhonda were great for me. They rescued my career when I didn’t have anything. They have plans and they’re going to go down the path they’re on. If they need me, I’d love to do it, and if they don’t, I understand that, too.”

A native of Necedah, Wisconsin, the 40-year-old Sauter joined Statesville, North Carolina-based GMS in 2016 and went on to win the Truck Series championship that season, earning three wins, 12 top fives and 19 top-10 finishes in 23 races.

Sauter finished second in 2017 and fourth in 2018 for GMS — even with a career-high six wins in what ultimately was his last with GMS.

“We cannot thank Johnny enough for his contributions to the growth and success of GMS Racing,” said team president Mike Beam in the release. “He won the first championship for us and added a lot of trophies to our shop. We wish him all the best for his future endeavors, both in and out of racing.”

The team will go forward with Sheldon Creed in the Truck Series for the 2019 season, as well as John Hunter Nemechek in the Xfinity Series and Sam Mayer in the ARCA Racing Series. A GMS representative said more information will be forthcoming from the team on its 2019 plans on Thursday.

Sauter has 244 career starts in a Truck, with 23 wins. He also has 85 NASCAR Cup races without a win and 207 Xfinity starts with three wins.

In addition, all four drivers who competed for the 2018 Truck championship will not be with the same teams in 2019 that they were with last season.

The 2019 Truck Series season kicks off Feb. 15 in the NextEra Energy 250 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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