|SOURCE: Sean Gardner, Getty Images|
The finish, which came in Sauter’s 178th series start, was his first in 230 Truck races. This dates back to September 8, 2005, when his #43 Menards / Energizer Chevrolet crashed after 100 laps of the Cheerios Betty Crocker 200 at Richmond International Raceway.
From the moment he committed to a full-time Truck Series schedule in 2009, Sauter has been a perennial race and championship contender. In that time, he’s scored all 11 of his series victories and has finished no worse than 9th in the series standings. He departed ThorSport Racing at the end of last season to join GMS Racing, a rising Chevrolet team whose fleet of drivers includes personable rising star Spencer Gallagher. Sauter’s first run in GMS’ #21 Chevrolet came in the Daytona opener, which he won in dramatic fashion while a multi-car wreck unfolded behind him. Mechanical issues in the second round at Atlanta left him 28th, Sauter eyed Martinsville, where he’d won twice with ThorSport in 2011 and 2013.
Sauter showed his usual speed throughout the weekend. He was 4th in the opening practice, 14th in the second, and 10th in Happy Hour. He improved even more in qualifying, securing the 3rd starting spot at an average speed of 95.864 mph. It was Sauter’s best start at the track since the fall of 2013, when he secured the outside-pole.
Things were much wilder at the other end of the field.
39 drivers were originally entered to qualify for Saturday’s 32-truck field, but by Friday, a withdrawal by Faith Motorsports cut the list to 38. Owner-driver Donne Levister was set to make his series debut at Martinsville driving his #62 Property Pros / SMD Toyota, but the truck failed tech inspection. The crew prepared to make repairs, but according to the team’s press release, the team did not have sufficient budget or time to complete the work in time.
By the end of qualifying, five drivers had made the field for their first-ever Truck Series start: Kaz Grala (who started 19th in GMS Racing’s #33 Allegiant Travel Chevrolet), Spencer Boyd (27th in the #63 Go-Parts.com RAM for Mike Mittler), Shane Lee (28th in the #07 LeeBoy Toyota for Kevin Cywinski), Claire Decker (31st in the #10 AmsOil Chevrolet for Jennifer Jo Cobb), and last-place starter Bryce Napier (32nd in the #1 Lilly Trucking Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing).
Claire Decker would join sister Paige in the race while cousin Natalie Decker ended up the slowest of the race’s six DNQs. Joining Natalie were restrictor plate veteran Chris Fontaine in his #78 Glenden Enterprises Toyota, Norm Benning whose #6 Chevrolet has now missed five straight races, Travis Kvapil in MAKE Motorsports’ #50 Bubba Burger / Corvetteparts.net Chevrolet, newcomer Jordan Anderson still looking for his first start since Daytona in an unsponsored #66 Bolen Motorsports Chevrolet, and defending ARCA Racing Series runner-up Austin Wayne Self.
Austin Wayne Self was set to make his third start of the year in his family-prepared #22 AM Technical Solutions Toyota, but ended up the fastest of the six drivers who failed to qualify. Meanwhile, Daytona last-placer Tommy Joe Martins managed to secure the 24th starting spot, but had wrecked his #44 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet in the first round of qualifying. With Martins forced to a backup and Self trying to make the field, an arrangement was made where Self’s #22 would take Martin’s place, the entry renumbered to Martin’s #44 with Self behind the wheel. The last-minute number changed was accomplished with Richard Petty Motorsports decals from Brian Scott’s Cup entry and a hand-made number decal on the nose.
Self’s driver change sent him to the rear along with the #86 Coastal Carolina University Chevrolet, whose driver Brandon Brown missed the driver’s meeting. Both joined 32nd-place starter Bryce Napier in his baby-blue #1 Chevrolet. The opening fifteen minutes ran under the green flag, and a handful of drivers fell down a lap. Timmy Hill went three laps down in his #49 Testoril Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports, then on Lap 42 was passed by Claire Decker in Cobb’s #10. At that moment, trouble broke out in Turns 3 and 4.
Johnny Sauter was running 2nd, just over a second behind polesitter Ben Rhodes, when brake heat apparently melted the bead on his right-front tire, sending him into the outside wall. Sauter managed to keep rolling under the ensuing yellow, but could only pull into the garage, done for the afternoon. GMS Racing’s tough day continued just 50 laps later when Kaz Grala lost a right-front of his own and clobbered the Turn 4 fence, leaving him 31st.
30th went to Mike Bliss, who took his first turn in the #71 Race Trac Convenience Stores Chevrolet fielded by fellow series veteran Carlos Contreras. Bliss lost laps early and was eventually sidelined with electrical issues. 29th went to Cole Custer, whose #00 Haas Automation Chevrolet was destroyed in a grinding backstretch wreck with Christopher Bell with just 13 laps remaining. Bell managed to keep going and finish 19th while first-timer Spencer Boyd’s RAM rounded out the group. With 79 laps to go, Boyd spun off the nose Rico Abreu and Tyler Reddick coming off Turn 2. Boyd avoided damage in the incident and later earned the second of two Lucky Dogs, but left the race late citing crash damage.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #21 in a Truck Series race since November 6, 2009, when Nick Tucker’s #21 GunBroker.com Dodge fell out with electrical issues after he completed 2 of 147 laps in the WinStar World Casino 350 at Texas.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #21 in a Truck Series race at Martinsville since April 7, 2001, when Morgan Shepherd’s #21 Genzman Racing Ford lost the brakes after 31 of 250 laps at the Advance Auto Parts 250.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #21-Johnny Sauter / 43 laps / crash
31) #33-Kaz Grala / 91 laps / crash
30) #71-Mike Bliss / 115 laps / electrical
29) #00-Cole Custer / 235 laps / crash
28) #63-Spencer Boyd / 237 laps / crash
2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) William Byron, Tommy Joe Martins, Johnny Sauter (1)
2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) GMS Racing, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Tommy Joe Martins (1)
2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (2)
2nd) Toyota (1)