Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Johnny Sauter laughs a little and insists he’s even more focused on winning races after hoisting four trophies in a historic and tremendous start to the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season.
Sauter enters Saturday night’s M&M’s 200 at Iowa Speedway (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) full of confidence and in the midst of career-best run of success.
If it feels to NASCAR fans as if Sauter is winning every other week, it is because…he essentially is. He has scored four victories through the first eight races of the season. Going back to last season, he has six wins in the last 11 races. Only fellow former Truck Series champions Kyle Busch and Mike Skinner have won four of the opening eight races in a season.
“So far so good, but a long way to go,’’ Sauter allowed with a slight laugh.
The just-turned 40-year-old is clearly and understandably happy with the quick start to the season, but is equally as focused on continuing the theme. Listening to him talk about the success in his No. 21 ISM Connect Chevrolet for GMS Racing, it’s easy to hear the seriousness with which he takes his title hopes.
“Obviously wins are great and you try to enjoy them, but for me, my wife tells me all the time, I should enjoy it, but I just start thinking about the next race,’’ Sauter explained. “It’s great and obviously I’m very proud of everything that’s gone on this year. But we still have a long way to go. Hopefully we can continue on the path we’re on.’’
And yes, in a series where so many young racers come to start their NASCAR careers and establish their name on the big time racing marquee, Sauter said there is some special pride in his trophy haul considering he celebrated his 40th birthday on May 1st.
Sauter’s latest victory, last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, for example, came by him winning a three-lap shootout in the final laps over pole sitter Stewart Friesen, who has had a strong season of his own, and his 19-year old GMS Racing teammate Justin Haley.
“There’s something to be said for being an older guy and having success for sure,’’ Sauter said. “So much of the sport is focused on the youth so it makes you feel good.
“I think experience is a key factor in all of this and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was asked the other day about the young guys and I said I was perfectly content being a 40-year-old and having the experience that I have.”
The 2016 Camping World Truck Series champion, Sauter certainly likes his GMS Racing team’s pace and attitude. Sauter’s four victories already equals a career-high season win total that he set last season. And there are still 15 races remaining in 2018.
“I think honestly, when I take a look at GMS as an organization, and the effort put forth and the amount of people working here and the people that are working here, it doesn’t surprise me,’’ Sauter said. “I think every race car driver feels he can win on any given weekend, that’s why they do it. So to get to this point, we’re just executing and it’s all working out.
“Having success and running well doesn’t surprise me. Maybe winning Charlotte surprised me because that’s been a thorn in my side. But it’s nice to see a lot of effort being put in and that paying off.’’
Sauter’s season-opening success will have a solid summer test. He’s still looking for his first win at three of the next four tracks on the schedule. But he’s come real close to Victory Lane before.
At this week’s stop, the 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway, Sauter has seven top-five finishes in 11 starts, including two runner-up finishes. He was second in 2017.
At Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., he has never finished worse than fourth place in six career starts. He was third last year and was the runner-up in 2009.
He is the defending winner at Chicagoland Speedway where the trucks race after Gateway. And at the next venue on the schedule, Kentucky Speedway, Sauter has two pole positions, finished in the top 10 in three of the last four races and again, has a best showing of runner-up – in 2010.
“As I look down the road, the only track that really has my attention is Eldora [July 18],’’ Sauter said of the Ohio dirt track. “I’m not a dirt racer, never claimed to be. I think we can have a solid night, I just don’t feel like I’ll be knocking on the door for the win. But you never know and with the way things are going, maybe we’ll hit on something.
“I know when we go to the race track everyone will do their best and how it shakes out, is how it shakes out. And these guys are pretty hungry.
“In my opinion, I’m just realistic. I’ve been racing a long time and I know things can turn in a hurry and this is a very humbling sport.
“But it’s important to enjoy it while it’s happening but it’s also important to not let your guard down, and to keep digging. That’s going to be my approach.’’