Johnny Sauter took a Texas-size step toward defending his NASCAR Trucks championship on Friday, winning the Jag Metals 350 Driving Hurricane Harvey Relief in a duel between the sage and the rookie.
The 39-year-old Sauter won for a fourth time at Texas Motor Speedway, maneuvering around Austin Cindric at Lap 108 and holding off the hard-charging 19-year-old on Lap 147.
By driving his No. 21 Chevrolet into Victory Lane, Sauter clinched a spot in the Trucks playoffs final four at Homestead-Miami on Nov. 19.
“Texas is becoming one of my favorite places on earth,” said Sauter, a Wisconsin native, who led 21 laps. “I haven’t been pumped up this much in a long, long time. This is a big win.”
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Series leader Christopher Bell, who won Stage 1 of the race, did nothing to hurt his already very solid chances of advancing with a finish of third, his third top-10 finish in five starts at TMS.
Trucks drivers left Texas with Bell still the front-runner, four points ahead of Sauter and 31 ahead of Matt Crafton, who might have had the best night of all.
Cindric is in fourth.
Crafton, the only trucks driver to win back-to-back titles (2013-14), had a rough night. Among his struggles was a pit road penalty (crew member over the wall too soon) that dropped him to the back.
Yet, he managed to finished ahead of two playoff drivers by coming in ninth.
Ben Rhodes, another playoff driver, also made a costly pit stop mistake.
Rhodes left his pit, but had to return to tighten his right front tire. He was running seventh at the time and finished 18th.
Behind him in 19th was John Hunter Nemechek, who led briefly when the contenders went to pit.
The 20-year-old from North Carolina held out for a yellow flag, but the gamble turned out a loser when he ran out of fuel. He was then assessed a pit stop penalty for speed exiting the pits.
Cindric, who led 36 laps, struggled in Turns 1 and 2.
That’s where Sauter caught and passed him on Lap 108.
“I timed it just right,” Sauter said. “I just knew he was struggling in Turn 1 and Turn 2 and didn’t think he would be able to make an aggressive move.”
Said Cindric: “I think it’s youth versus experience tonight and experience won in more ways than one. Johnny taught me a few things. Definitely some things to keep in the notebook.”
For Sauter, the victory was his third in 2017 and 16th in 219 career starts.
Sauter swept the two trucks races in 2012 and won the fall race a year to set up his run to the title.
The series heads next week to Phoenix International Raceway before concluding at Homestead.
“Yes, this is looking a lot like last year,” Sauter said. “We’ve got to be humble and nose to the grindstone. We need to go to Phoenix and try to win the race. You can’t let your guard down. Looking forward to the next couple. Got to get it done”