by Brock Beard
Johnny Sauter scored the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series career in Saturday’s Tyson 250 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway when his #04 CarQuest Ford fell out with alternator issues after 153 of 252 laps.
The finish, which came in Sauter’s 320th start, was his first of the season and first in a Truck Series race since August 30, 2020 at Gateway, 64 races ago. In the Truck Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 2nd for the #04, the 39th from electrical issues, and the 119th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 19th for the #04, the 137th from electrical problems, and the 1,012th for Ford.
After a difficult 2021 campaign, Sauter has scaled back to part-time in the Truck Series. On top of a few runs for longtime team owner ThorSport, he’s also made attempts with both G2G Racing and Young’s Motorsports. According to Tim Viens, Sauter was set to run for G2G again this year in Daytona, but he planned a career change, opening the door for Norm Benning’s run in the #46. But after Kaden Honeycutt parted ways with Roper Racing, Sauter was named as his replacement. The pair took 19th in the first race together in Kansas, then 28th last week in Darlington.
While Sauter is one of the Truck Series’ most experienced veterans, the North Wilkesboro track was still something new to him. When NASCAR last raced there in 1996, Sauter was still five years from his XFINITY Series debut and another two from his first Truck Series start. His first laps on the track came on Friday, where he ran a strong 11th among the 40 entrants. He lost some speed in qualifying, but still secured his place in the field by taking 29th with a lap of 109.388mph (20.569 seconds).
The track proved particularly brutal to the four teams sent home early. The first incident of the weekend occurred in Turn 1, when Norm Benning’s #6 MDIA Chevrolet broke loose and backed hard into the wall with the right-rear corner. As Benning’s team set to work piecing the truck back together with the bent parts – similar to Jordan Anderson at Mosport in 2019 – the caution flew again as Akinori Ogata’s #46 Kyowa-Eidemiller / Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Toyota erupted in flames and slammed the wall. Ogata climbed out, but unlike Benning, the team couldn’t piece their only truck together and had to withdraw. Benning cleared inspection for Saturday qualifying, but fell short, sent home along with Josh Reaume in the #33 Motorsports Safety Group Ford and Parker Kligerman in the #75 Food Country USA / Lay’s Chevrolet. Kligerman’s DNQ was particularly surprising as he’d run a strong 7th in practice.
Taking the 36th and final starting spot was defending series champion Zane Smith, whose #38 Boot Barn Ford ranked 4th in practice, but was prohibited from qualifying after it failed inspection three times. No other teams were sent to the back for pre-race penalties, which placed Smith on the outside of the final row alongside 35th-place Spencer Boyd in the #12 Latitude Aero Chevrolet.
When the race started, Smith was last across the stripe, 4.207 seconds back of the lead, but by the end of Lap 1 completed a pass on Kris Wright. Wright’s #02 F.N.B. Corporation Chevrolet fell from 8.062 seconds back of the lead on Lap 3 to 10.761 on Lap 5, and fought to keep pace with teammate Boyd who was aggressively running the concrete apron in Turns 3 and 4. The gap between Wright and Boyd grew to 0.410 on Lap 8, then closed to 0.280 on Lap 14 all while Wright and crew diagnosed a tight condition. By Lap 21, the leaders put Wright, then Boyd a lap down.
On Lap 23, Timmy Hill was running 22nd in a “throwback” paint scheme honoring he and brother Tyler Hill’s father Jerry, who ran an orange-and-yellow #56 Chevrolet in ARCA and Cup back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the truck had a rough afternoon. Coming off Turn 4, Sauter made contact with Hill, sending the #56 into a spin. No other drivers were involved, though Hill lost a lap. The crew cleaned the grille and sent Hill back out, and on Lap 29 the last spot fell to Daniel Dye in the #43 Champion Container Chevrolet. Working with a new pit crew, Dye had a slow stop after one of the crew member’s air wrenches broke on the right-front.
Dye remained last for the Lap 32 restart, then dropped Hill to last place the next time by. Hill then made a move on Lap 34, climbing to 34th ahead of both Dye and Boyd. On Lap 36, Dye was still in last, but pulled alongside Boyd when an aggressive move by Jake Garcia caused the field to stack-up and nearly collide with one another. By Lap 41, Dye cleared Boyd, ad Hill had climbed into the Lucky Dog spot. The next caution for Hailie Deegan’s spin in the #13 Ford Performance Ford allowed Boyd to discuss adjustments with his crew, but the team decided not to change tires since Stage 1 was nearly over. By then, Boyd was between one and two laps down. “Sorry, guys,” he said. “Buried already.”
On Lap 66, shortly after the restart from the Deegan caution, Hill and Deegan made contact in Turns 1 and 2, this time causing significant damage to the left-front corner of Hill’s truck and nearly causing the front bumper to fall off the #56. Hill made it to pit road, the crew checking the splitter bar as it rubbed against the left-front tire, and taping up the fender. Hill was back on track for the one-lap sprint to end Stage 1, then pitted once more for additional tape. The crew discovered the duct work had also been damaged in the wreck, meaning the radiator wouldn’t cool properly. While not sure if they were on the “Crash Clock,” Hill ultimately cleared it and continued on for the Lap 81 restart, still ahead of last-place Boyd.
On Lap 85, Boyd dropped Hill to last, and the #56 now pulled behind the wall for more lengthy repairs on the left-front splitter and suspension. On Lap 122, Hill re-fired the engine and returned to the track the next time by, finally completing his 83rd lap of the race on Lap 125. At the time, Hill was 43 laps down, but still under power with the other 35 starters.
|The small fire is extinguished on Sauter's truck.|
Sauter’s misfortunes began soon after. On Lap 158, NASCAR reported Sauter had gone behind the wall with a mechanical issue. Footage collected by Steven Taranto showed Sauter come down pit road with the hood up and a small fire under the hood. The team said this was the alternator, and radio transmissions indicated they were now replacing both the alternator and the wiring harness in the garage. However, they also reported they were breaking down their pit box, and would ultimately be declared out with electrical issues as the cited reason. On Lap 196, Hill finally climbed past Sauter into 35th, and would ultimately finish outside the Bottom Five in 31st.
A series of crashes in the late stages completed the Bottom Five. Still another driver involved in an incident with Deegan was Dean Thompson, whose #5 Thompson Pipe Group Toyota was sent sliding backward into the outside wall, where it was struck by a passing Kris Wright. Last-place starter Zane Smith climbed as high as 2nd before he was collected in a chain-reaction pileup off Turn 2 triggered by a slowing Tyler Ankrum. Smith was eliminated along with the following Ben Rhodes in the #99 Kubota Ford and Rajah Caruth in the #24 Wendell Scott Foundation Chevrolet.
The racing on North Wilkesboro’s worn surface yielded similar results to last summer’s race at IRP, and both races saw Chris Hacker earn a strong run with On Point Motorsports. This time, Hacker had a strong finish to go with it, taking 12th in the #30 Morgan & Morgan Toyota, a new career-best for Hacker in only his 12th series start. Two spots behind came Daniel Dye, who after running around last place in the early stages managed a 14th-place finish – his second-best finish in only ten series starts.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #04 in any NASCAR sanctioned race at North Wilkesboro. The number’s only other last-place run in Trucks occurred on May 7, 2021 with Cory Roper at Darlington.
*Sauter sets the record for most laps complete by a Truck Series last-place finisher. The previous two runnings saw the last-place runner complete no more than 60 laps.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #04-Johnny Sauter / 153 laps / electrical
35) #5-Dean Thompson / 182 laps / crash
34) #24-Rajah Caruth / 200 laps / crash
33) #99-Ben Rhodes / 202 laps / crash
32) #38-Zane Smith / 204 laps / crash
2023 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) G2G Racing (3)
2nd) AM Racing, G2G Racing, Reaume Brothers Racing, Young’s Motorsports (2)
3rd) Niece Motorsports, Roper Racing, TRICON Garage (1)
2023 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Ford (4)
2nd) Chevrolet, Toyota (3)
2023 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
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