Johnny Sauter feels ‘really blessed’ as Truck Series prepares for Phoenix

With only Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix remaining before the final four field is set for the Camping World Truck Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, everyone is suddenly chasing Johnny Sauter.

Sauter is the only driver who has clinched his spot in the inaugural Truck Series Chase championship foursome after winning the first two races in the current round of the playoffs. Sauter, who owns three wins overall this season, won on the short track at Martinsville and then followed that up with another victory last weekend at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway track.

The four drivers directly behind him in the current Chase standings – William Byron, Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Timothy Peters – are separated by a mere five points, but at least one of them is not moving on past Friday night’s race at Phoenix

Sauter and his No. 21 GMS Racing team members are enjoying the fact that they are the only NCTWS Chase team that can relax a little bit heading into Friday night’s penultimate race.

“Everyone has just been working really hard here at GMS Racing since the beginning of the year to get to this point,” Sauter’s crew chief, Joe Shear Jr., told FOX Sports. “We’re just hitting the momentum at the right time at the end of the year.

“We’ve been working on our setups and stuff like that, and everyone has been doing a phenomenal job. And I can’t ask for anything better than this. This is outstanding. Two in a row going into these last two races? We’re on a roll and feeling really good.”

They have every right to feel full of themselves, but they know the job is not done. That’s why they would still like to complete a solid run – maybe even win yet again – to continue building momentum into the winner-take-all title race at Homestead, where the highest-finishing driver amongst the last four Chase survivors will take home the trophy as the 2016 series champion.

Sauter credits car owner Maury Gallagher and Shear, mostly, for putting himself in position to possibly win his first Truck Series championship. Sauter drove his first race in the series in 2003 and has been a full-time NCWTS participant since 2009, and owns 13 career Truck Series wins.

“Man, this is amazing. I can’t thank the Gallagher family enough for giving me this opportunity,” Sauter said. “I’ve got to thank Joe Shear and all the guys at the shop. Our truck was awesome on the long run (at Texas).”

Shear was not on Sauter’s pit box when the season began. In fact, Marcus Richmond was Sauter’s crew chief when Sauter scored his first victory of 2016 in a stirring season opener at Daytona.

But six weeks later, Richmond left GMS Racing to become Cole Custer’s NCTWS crew chief at JR Motorsports. Shear, who had recently resigned as Custer’s crew chief, jumped at the chance to come to GMS in the same role for Sauter.

Sauter said adjustments made to his truck during the Texas race, plus simply the overall teamwork his group displayed not only that night but all season, have made all the difference in the world to him.

“It’s been the pit stops, everything,” Sauter said. “(At Texas), I was downplaying to everybody in practice how good my truck was. I kept saying, ‘It’s not that good, it’s not that good.’ Then they dropped the green flag and I was going sideways. But I told our guys, ‘Don’t tighten it up too much.’ “

They’ll need to try to find the right balance at Phoenix, where Sauter has never won in his career. But he does own three top-five and four top-10 finishes in his last six races at the 1-mile track, with a best finish of third in 2010.

Plus he is the only one of the remaining six Chase drivers who enters the event in a totally relaxed state of mind, thanks to his two recent victories.

“I feel really good and really blessed to be in the position I am,” Sauter said.

The only part of his game that seemed off a little bit at Texas was his post-race burnout. But he said that was by design.

“I’ve got to apologize to the fans for the burnout,” Sauter said. “I know it was lame, but I’ve got to have this truck for Homestead.”

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