Johnny Sauter right at home in neighborly Iowa
July 10, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
NEWTON, Iowa -- Being a short-track racer at heart, there's a handful of qualities about Iowa Speedway that appeal to Johnny Sauter. Prime among them is the location, just southwest of his neighboring home state of Wisconsin.
"I'm a Midwest guy so I love the atmosphere," Sauter said Thursday during opening-day inspections at the .875-mile track. "When you come here, it's just like being back home. With it racing the way it does and me liking the surroundings, I think that just bodes well for us. We've been very, very consistent here -- six top-fives in seven starts, but no wins, but that's something I'd like to change."
Sauter will get his chance Friday night when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series runs the American Ethanol 200 (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), the ninth of 22 races for the circuit this season. The 36-year-old veteran will take the green flag as the truck tour's points leader, thanks to his status as the only driver with five consecutive top-10 finishes heading into the event.
Even with his team parked in the No. 1 garage stall afforded to the standings leader, Sauter still sees room for improvement, even as his ThorSport Racing team continues to scratch out top-10s.
"We've actually kind of struggled a lot of places until the race, where we've been able to just ultimately work on it all day and get ourselves in position toward the end of the race to come away with a decent finish," Sauter said. "We've just been lacking initial speed and we find a way to get it. We've just got to find a way to unload faster. ...
"We've been pretty solid every week, but to reach up there and win a race, a lot of things have to go right and we just haven't had things bounce our way yet."
Crew chief Dennis Connor worked with Sauter for half of last season and was reunited with him after spending the first two races of 2014 atop the pit box for ThorSport teammate Jeb Burton. The communication has picked up where it left off, but Connor is devoted to weeding the gremlins out of the No. 98 team.
"That's kind of how our year has gone so far," Connor said. "We've focused on finishing races and not doing anything foolish and making the best out of the situation we're dealt on that particular day. We're working on all these things to get better and logically, the more you do something, the better you get at it."
Sauter's rate of success has been near constant since joining the truck series full-time in 2009. Since then, he's made a formidable pairing with teammate Matt Crafton, the defending series champion, winning at least one race in each of his five full seasons with the Duke and Rhonda Thorson-owned operation, based in Sandusky, Ohio.
Long-running driver-owner combinations are hard to come by in most forms of motorsports, but ThorSport boasts two -- Sauter's long-term commitment and Crafton's participation for 13 of the last 14 seasons.
"(It's) not only just the support they've given us, but the truck series itself," Sauter said, taking the dedication theme a step further. "Duke and Rhonda have been here for 19 years and it's a huge commitment on their part. ... They've obviously been very loyal to me, and that means something. It's something you don't see every day. That's cool -- it makes you want to go out there and dig a little harder. I couldn't be happier to have this opportunity."
Sauter also counts himself as fortunate in the sponsorship department with Nextant Aerospace and Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff sharing the backing of the No. 98 Toyota. The livery of the latter, a tobacco-free smokeless brand, will be on his truck this weekend.
Sauter not only endorses but uses the product, which has come into sharper focus as Major League Baseball players have made public campaigns to kick the habit or find tobacco-free alternatives in the weeks since June 16, when oral cancer claimed the life of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
"Obviously, it's a good alternative to tobacco. To me, that's what it's all about," Sauter said. "Obviously we all know the horror stories from people we know or people we see or talk to or see on TV. It's good to be able to have an alternative that gives you the same effect."