Johnny Sauter's fifth full season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series took such an undulating path that even by late September, he rated his own chances as slim for a place of honor at the year-end awards ceremonies.
A midstream crew chief change, a clutch victory and a string of solid finishes late in the season changed all that.
"It wasn't very long ago we were in Las Vegas and they had me in the media room there and they were asking me all these questions about being at the banquet," Sauter said after giving his speech for a fourth-place result in the season standings. "They were saying 'well, it's for the banquet' and I said, 'well, you don't have to worry about me. I'm not going to be there.' We got on a roll there."
Sauter got off to the best start imaginable, winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway and following that with a victory in the series' next race at Martinsville Speedway. Top-five finishes in the first four races had him perched atop the standings, but Sauter fell to second place after his No. 98 ThorSport Racing team was hit with a 25-point penalty and a four-race suspension for crew chief Joe Shear Jr. for an unapproved fuel cell at Kansas Speedway in April.
The infraction handed the series lead to ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton, who never relinquished the No. 1 spot on the way to his first series championship. But for Sauter, a chain of crashes (at Charlotte, Pocono and Eldora) pushed his ranking to the edges of the top 10 during the summer months.
"When you only have 22 races and you go through a stretch where you have a couple of bad races, it's very, very hard to make that up," Sauter said. "The key is consistency and obviously we saw that this year with what Crafton did."
After Sauter's tangle with Ty Dillon at Pocono, the No. 98 team dipped to ninth in the truck series standings, prompting ThorSport to make a change at crew chief by adding veteran wrench Dennis Connor to the mix. It didn't happen overnight, but Sauter steadily began inching back up the chart, logging seven top-10 finishes over the final 11 races of the season.
That sustaining span was highlighted by a stirring victory in a wreck-filled contest at Talladega Superspeedway, where Sauter expertly avoided the carnage to seal a sweep of the season's two restrictor-plate races.
"Superspeedway racing, in my opinion, is a lot of luck, but I do think that this year I prepared more than I ever have for it," Sauter said of his approach to two of NASCAR's fastest tracks this year. "I watched a lot of video footage from years past. We don't qualify well when we go to those places, so it's always a mystery. ... I think it's a big part of luck. I think preparation,obviously all the guys at ThorSport preparing for superspeedway racing makes things a lot easier for me. You just try to go out there and try to be smart all day long. Everything has to go right to win races, but at superspeedways especially."
The team's strong start to 2013, bookended by a solid late rally into the top five in points, bodes well for Sauter's next season. Even more promising, the 35-year-old driver signed a multiyear contract extension just ahead of the season finale in November, securing his future with Duke and Rhonda Thorson's Ohio-based operation.
Three victories in 2013 marked a career-best in the win column for a single season. Sauter says the emphasis going forward will be eliminating rough patches in the results column.
"I need to perform every week and not have any bad luck," Sauter said. "Hopefully we're the ones sitting at the championship table next year."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
SEASON IN REVIEW
- Dec. 9: Matt Crafton
- Dec. 12: Jeb Burton
- Dec. 19: Johnny Sauter
- Dec. 26: James Buescher
- Jan. 2: Ty Dillon