HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Johnny Sauter remembers well the first time he talked to GMS Racing competition director Mike Beam about making a significant career change. While at the hospital for the birth of his third child in September 2015, Sauter scurried away to the parking deck for a 45-minute chat about driving for the upstart organization.
That period in Sauter’s life wound up being the rare lightning-strikes-twice instance of two life-changing events coinciding. The longtime journeyman, in the first year of his partnership with the Maurice Gallagher-owned team, realized his life’s dream Friday night by clinching his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship with a gritty third-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Though the bonds forged between Sauter and GMS, like his toddler-aged daughter, are barely a year old, the team was front of mind for the veteran driver after crossing under the checkered flag. He offered a rapid succession of thank-yous over the team radio, a champion at last.
“I never thought that would happen,” Sauter radioed in during the cool-down lap. “This is because of you guys.”
Sauter made a self-described “leap of faith” in the offseason after spending seven seasons with perennial powerhouse ThorSport Racing. During his tenure with the Ohio-based organization, Sauter regularly competed for victories and finished among the top five in series points in five of those seven years.
Yet his first discussions with GMS brought newfound energy, a near-instant comfort level and confidence in the group’s dedication to building a title-contending team. Renewing his family’s long-running General Motors allegiances by shifting to a Chevrolet team was also an important motivator.
“People is a big ingredient,” Sauter said. “There’s just a lot of little things. I could sit here all night and talk about it. It’s just the whole package. I just felt very comfortable about meeting the Gallagher family. I’m not sitting up here blowing smoke, I’m telling you the truth. I felt very comfortable that night and knew that this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
For Gallagher, the move to bring Sauter to the fold was nearly two years in the making. Since the operation’s full-fledged launch in 2014, GMS Racing has fielded trucks for a host of several part-time Sprint Cup stars along with relative newcomers to the series, but the 38-year-old Sauter represented an element that was missing.
“Johnny was that kind of constant,” Gallagher said. “He shows up with that kind of experience — and I call him the old salt — and you just can’t put a price on that kind of been there, done that. He was terrific with the younger guys, and I couldn’t ask for a better teammate. It’s an investment. You do it, and you hope to have the outcome we had. You’d like to think that every investment pays off. It’s hard in this business, but this one has paid off in spades.”
The new partnership bore fruit with immediacy after a victory in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team then peaked in the series’ first-ever Chase postseason, with two wins in the Round of 6 clinching Sauter’s title shot in style.
Friday night’s performance, rallying from a 19th-place starting spot and outdueling former teammate Matt Crafton in a sterling battle down the stretch, represented a coronation for the 15-year veteran with experience in all three NASCAR national series. It also meant the first season-long laurels for Sauter since a championship in the former American Speed Association (ASA) AC-Delco Challenge Series in 2001. And it also signified a long-awaited celebration for a Wisconsin family with a rich devotion to racing.
“It’s all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” Sauter said. “Sometimes it works out, and I’ve always said, timing is everything. You know, I feel like the timing is good where I’m at right now.”
By: Zack Albert, NASCAR.com