Johnny Sauter needed to win Friday’s NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series regular-season finale in order to qualify for the 2020 playoffs.
Eight laps into the 250-lap event, Sauter’s chances of advancing ended before they could even really begin.
The No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford had to make an unplanned pit stop under early green-flag conditions. Sauter thought he had a flat right-front tire and headed straight for his crew members. They fixed a mechanical issue and sent Sauter back out on track — two laps down.
It’s an understatement to say Sauter was unhappy, filling his team’s radio airwaves with some colorful language.
By the end of Stage 1 on Lap 70, Sauter was 31st. He made his way to 29th at the conclusion of Stage 2 on Lap 140. The lingering problem never fully went away and warranted further adjustments through the ToyotaCare 250. Ultimately, he placed 27th and eight laps down as his ThorSport Racing teammates finished 1-2-3 in order for the first time ever.
“He has a black cloud that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in racing following him,” said Matt Crafton, who finished second behind Grant Enfinger and one spot ahead of Ben Rhodes. “They were definitely different setup-wise than all of us. All of us were different, but at the same time, Johnny was really different and it bit him.”
Sauter entered the race five spots and 125 points below the cutline. That’s why he needed to win to secure a berth. Pointing his way in was impossible with the deficit he faced.
Joining Sauter right outside the official 10-driver playoff picture are Derek Kraus (11th), Raphael Lessard (12th), Stewart Friesen (13th), Tanner Gray (14th) and Sauter (15th).
This season is Kraus, Lessard and Gray’s first full-time campaign. Friesen is in his third all-in go-around but has never finished better than fourth in the final standings. Sauter is the only one out of the first five out who has won a championship before (2016).
Sauter has been racing full-time in the series since 2009. In his 11 completed seasons, he never placed worse than ninth in the rankings. He’s already locked into breaking that streak since he did not make this year’s playoffs, automatically putting him below 10th no matter what happens the rest of the way.
Through the 16 regular-season races, Sauter has just three top-five and seven top-10 runs. He’s averaging a 17.9 finish with five DNFs entering the postseason.
“I truly, truly feel terrible for the guys,” Crafton said. “I know they’ll get it together here in this playoff, win a couple and then they’re going to be mad they didn’t make it.”