Johnny Sauter is one step closer to his second Camping World Truck Series championship.
Thursday night’s regular-season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway went as well as it could have for Sauter and his GMS Racing No. 21 team. Sauter, the 2016 champion, earned the regular season championship just by taking the green flag in the UNOH 200. Aside from the bragging rights and trophy, for Sauter’s efforts in the first 15 races the awarded also came with 15 playoff points.
But then Sauter went out and won for the first time at the Tennessee bullring, padding his points total even more.
“Last week was the ultimate kick in the pants for me, and I’ve been beating myself up pretty hard all week,” said Sauter, referring to the previous round at Michigan in which he was edged out for the win by Brett Moffitt at the finish line. “I knew we had to come to Bristol and win this thing. I don’t think we ever got complacent with the wins we got earlier in the season; we just got off our game a little. I made some mistakes, and I just knew I had to pull it together because these guys are doing a great job.
“I can’t think everyone at GMS enough, everyone at GMS Fabrication. We had them on the truck tonight which was really cool, got to take them to victory lane. We’ve got to just keep digging. Winning races is the ultimate, and there’s nothing in the world that feels as good as this, especially at Bristol. A lot of things have to go right here to get a win. I’m a short track guy and to come and win here, at a place that is so historic and that I’ve raced at for so long, it’s just awesome.”
The start of the 200-lap race also locked Grant Enfinger into the postseason. In his sophomore CWTS season with ThorSport Racing, this will be Enfinger’s first appearance in the playoffs.
Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley and Ben Rhodes were also locked into the postseason going into the regular season finale. The final two playoff spots went to Stewart Friesen and Matt Crafton.
Friesen was announced to have clinched his spot after the first stage where he earned additional points by finishing seventh. This marks the first playoff appearance for Friesen in his second season, and being an alliance teammate of Sauter and Haley, the inclusion of Friesen strengths the opportunity for GMS and Halmar Friesen Racing.
Crafton is a two-time champion. Going into the night with a healthy points advantage on the cutoff line, Crafton hung onto the final spot with an eighth-place finish and the fact that there was not a new winner – a driver who was not already locked into the playoffs.
“I said it the other day – if we get in, we get in; if we don’t, we didn’t deserve to because we haven’t been ourselves this year,” Crafton said. “I don’t know what it is. People all want to say it’s the [manufacturer] switch, but the 41’s [teammate Rhodes] had speed. Here in the last eight races, we’ve gotten a lot better, but we haven’t been the consistent group that we’ve been in the past with me and Junior [crew chief Carl Joiner] and this whole group.
“We’ve always been able to put races together — top five, top 10 and get some wins. This year, we’ve just had too many 30th places, 20th places, and just breaks. Just been off a little bit, but I know for the packages that we worked on here lately, I feel real good going into the playoffs.”
Here is the reseeded playoff grid going into the first round, which begins August 26 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park road course:
1. Johnny Sauter, 2042 points (42 playoff points)
2. Brett Moffitt, 2027 points (27 playoff points)
3. Noah Gragson, 2022 points (22 playoff points)
4. Ben Rhodes, 2014 points (14 playoff points)
5. Stewart Friesen, 2012 points (12 playoff points)
6. Grant Enfinger, 2011 points (11 playoff points)
7. Justin Haley, 2009 points (9 playoff points)
8. Matt Crafton, 2003 points (3 playoff points)