Sauter, Bell form early 1-2 punch as trucks tackle Dover

RELATED: Full Dover schedule | Series standings

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season hasn’t quite reached the quarter mark, but just five races in, there’s already a “can you top this?” vibe from the series’ two best drivers to date — Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell.

Bell, a 22-year-old protégé at Kyle Busch Motorsports, has dazzled in the early stages of his second full truck season. The Oklahoma native, who prevailed earlier this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has led multiple laps in all five races this year and has three Keystone Light Pole Awards to date.

Yet Bell is still staring at a 15-point deficit in the standings to Sauter, a 39-year-old Wisconsinite who won his first series championship last year and holds a three-race streak of runner-up finishes this season.

“I feel like my team’s been executing every race, and my results I feel like have been pretty great throughout the year, and then all of a sudden this 21 truck (of Sauter) is still ahead of us in points,” Bell said after finishing third — again, one spot behind Sauter — in the series’ most recent race on May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “As great as my year’s been, his year’s been even better.

“Happy with our team and we’ve been able to execute. They’ve just been executing a little bit better all season long.”

The two drivers will reprise their contest atop the points in Friday’s Bar Harbor 200 (5:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) at Dover International Speedway. The 200-mile event is another chance for Sauter and Bell to further separate themselves from the pack; Matt Crafton, their third-place competition, sits 51 points off Sauter’s advantage at the top.

The two have been in close quarters before. Both Bell and Sauter joined Crafton and Timothy Peters in the championship-eligible quartet in last year’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Though there’s plenty of racing left before this season’s playoff field is decided in September, Sauter surmised in Charlotte that the two could be booking a return engagement in the final four.

“Obviously, I knew coming into the season that Christopher was going to be one of the guys you’re going to be racing for the championship, there’s no doubt about it,” said Sauter, in his second year with the GMS Racing team. “He’s a very talented young driver and obviously with a great organization. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see us racing each other down to the wire.”

The two have enjoyed success at Dover, though Sauter’s sample size is much greater. Bell finished third as a rookie last year in his only Monster Mile start. The veteran Sauter has four consecutive top-10 results at the concrete track in Delaware.

Bell is still learning, but at an advanced clip. In the midst of his second full-time season, Bell is returning to several tracks where he was a first-timer last year. And as his crew chief, Ryan “Rudy” Fugle, points out, he’s still finding a rhythm on asphalt to complement his extensive dirt-track background.

“It was one of his bright spots early, and I think it’s definitely an all-out kind of race track,” Fugle said of his driver’s return to Dover. “You’ve just got to survive and be there. Then we’ll go for it, and I think we’ll be good.”

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