Johnny Sauter falls one spot shy of a championship repeat

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Oh what a difference a year can make.

In 2016 a third-place finish awarded Johnny Sauter with the one prize that had eluded him for eight years – a Camping World Truck Series crown.

This season, the same result left him with with heartbreak.

Sauter fell one position short of repeating as Truck Series champion, conceding the title to Homestead-Miami Speedway runner-up Christopher Bell.

Known as a driver who avoids mincing words, Sauter didn’t shy away from his disappointment after Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200.

“This is hard. This is tough,” Sauter said. “To come down to one race. They were just better than us tonight.”

Bell entered Homestead as the favorite to take home the title, but Sauter was a close second after claiming wins in the two races that preceded the finale at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.

All told, Sauter had put together arguably the best final run of the entire Truck Series field. With tensions rising, the GMS Racing veteran hit his stride, claiming the regular season finale at Chicagoland Speedway and scoring top 10s in nine of the final 10 races.

Only a crash at Talladega Superspeedway had kept Sauter from running within sight of the lead throughout the playoffs, so he entered the season finale among the favorites to take home the championship.

Sauter qualified 11th, two spots ahead of Bell. But unlike Bell, Sauter’s No. 21 Chevrolet didn’t have the right combination of pace and handling through the race’s opening stint. The 39-year-old Wisconsinite struggled, running in the back half of the top 10 and sharing his frustrations with his team over in-car radio.

While his team never quite found the winning balance for his truck, Sauter persevered. The veteran methodically worked his way up through the field, entering the top five during the final stage and rising up to third over the race’s last run.

As the season entered its final 30 laps Sauter could see Bell directly ahead of him, but Bell had the better long-run truck. The 22-year-old gapped Sauter over the race’s final stint, pulling more than 10 seconds clear of him as the event began to draw to a close.

Fuel issues for second-place Ben Rhodes with five laps remaining gave cause for concern to all of the Championship 4, and the risk of a late caution persisted. But in the end neither became a factor.

The Truck Series’ final race of 2017 ended with a 47-lap green-flag run, and Bell cruised to the championship in second.

Sauter followed in third, 12.729 seconds removed from a championship opportunity.

For the fifth-straight year, Sauter finished inside of the top four in points. But for the fourth time in that stretch, he was denied a title.

If there’s any reprieve for Sauter, it’s that he’ll get a chance to avenge his loss next season. GMS Racing announced shortly before the race that Sauter had been given an extension through 2018.

“One spot too short, I guess,” Sauter said. “We had a great year and we get to do it again next year, so I look forward to that.”

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