MARTINSVILLE, Va. – With a finish that was the diametric opposite of his last run at Martinsville Speedway, Johnny Sauter punched his ticket to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race with a victory in Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at the .526-mile short track.
After a restart with 18 laps left, Sauter, who finished last at Martinsville in April, held off pole winner Chase Elliott, beating the No. 71 Chevrolet driver to the finish line by .316 seconds.
On Lap 176, Sauter took the lead from John Hunter Nemechek, who had gained track position with an earlier two-tire stop under caution. Sauter held the top spot the rest of the way, through a stretch that included the fifth caution of the race for an accident that put Ben Kennedy’s title hopes in peril.
But Sauter knows he’ll be racing for the championship on Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he scored the fourth of his 12 career victories in 2011.
“The key deal is liking a race track, and I can’t think of a better race track to decide a championship than Homestead,” Sauter said. “It’s a very racy place – you can run all over the race track. I feel like we are peaking at the right time. I feel like we’ve kind of saved some of our best bullets, so to speak, for the end, and we can go and really work hard on our Homestead piece for these next couple weeks.
“But I’m a racer – I think we all are – and we’re not just going to hang out these next two weeks. Texas has been a race track that we’ve had some success at in the past. We sat on the pole there earlier this year and had a shot to win the race… We want to win races, but we’re in a luxurious spot, I guess you’d call it. I want to win a championship. I’ve been doing this a long time, and have won races, but a championship is something that’s eluded me.”
Sauter’s No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet surged ahead on the Lap 183 restart. On the same circuit, Elliott passed Nemechek for the runner-up spot and took off in pursuit of Sauter. Unable to execute a clean pass of the leader, Elliott settled for second place in his first NCWTS start since Nov. 8, 2013 at Phoenix.
“I got loose off of Turn 2 coming to the checkered (flag), and that was probably my opportunity to get him,” said Elliott, who will start fifth in Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race (1 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “But you’ve got to be careful. Those guys are racing for a championship, and some days it’s just not worth making a mistake or wrecking a guy or whatever.
“Obviously, I wish we could have got him, but I feel like I learned a lot today, and that’s the most important thing for (Sunday).”
Kennedy left the track wishing Ben Rhodes had used the same restraint Elliott observed in Saturday’s race. On Lap 176, Rhodes punted Kennedy’s No. 33 Chevrolet in the middle of Turn 2 and sent it spinning. In the aftermath of the wreck, John Wes Townley collided with Kennedy’s Silverado, doing further damage.
Kennedy stayed on the lead lap but settled for 18th place, worst among the six Chase drivers and one spot ahead of two-time champion Matt Crafton, whose afternoon went south with a broken left rear brake caliper.
After the race, Kennedy and Rhodes engaged in a heated exchange on pit road with NASCAR officials between them.
“He just wrecked us,” Kennedy told reporters. “He tried to wreck us earlier and failed. On to the next.”
Rhodes took responsibility for the crash.
“I owe him an apology for sure,” Rhodes said. “I know he’s in the Chase. I thought I could nudge him cleanly but got into him a second time and spun him around.”
Nemechek came home third in front of Chase drivers Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters, who ran fourth and fifth, respectively. William Byron finished eighth to gain the fourth spot in the Chase standings, nine points ahead of Crafton and 10 ahead of Kennedy.
The series moves to Texas and Phoenix in the following two weeks for the completion of the Round of 6.