Johnny Sauter took firm aim on a seat at the season-ending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series' awards ceremony with a spectacular win Saturday with his No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota in the eighth annual Fred's 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.
Crafton did spin across the line in ninth position and expanded his lead in the championship to 57 points over Ty Dillon with four races remaining. Since Sauter won the season opener and Crafton's led the standings for the last 14 races, the ThorSport pair are the only drivers to lead the Truck Series this season.
To achieve his short-term goal of the top-five Sauter, whose three wins are the most this season by a Truck Series regular -- Sprint Cup star and Truck Series owner/driver Kyle Busch has four -- and are part of his series-best eight top-five finishes in 18 events, will race on four more tracks in the next four weeks, three of which he's won on in the last two seasons.
"I've always wanted to win at this racetrack and to be able to do it (Saturday) was big," Sauter said. "I want to say (the final laps) were by design, but it really wasn't. (Me and Crafton) actually got separated a little bit and as we hooked back up, I rode the brake and we hooked back up and I was like, 'Hey this is actually going to work out better and we're going to have huge momentum.'
"With three-to-go there's nobody you'd rather have on your rear bumper cover than your teammate, and he pushed and pushed and pushed and it worked out in our favor. It's unfortunate that Matt got tore up because it would have been really cool to have another one-two ThorSport finish but I'm proud of everyone at ThorSport -- what a great effort."
Connor would do anything to have four more like Saturday.
"We had a team meeting before the race to talk about what we wanted to do, and Johnny and spotter Tab (Boyd) had worked out exactly what they wanted to do," Connor said. "But usually all the planning that you do falls to the wayside when they drop the green flag, so (Saturday) was just our day because everything we planned worked out, from our fuel mileage to our strategy.
"We could have done a couple of green-white-checkers if we had to, but I'm so lucky to come back to the series with a great driver like Johnny and a team that puts in the long, hard hours and have really put their lives by the wayside to finish out this year and get the best results that we possibly can."
The win was the ninth of Sauter's five-year Truck Series career with ThorSport and indeed, it was the team-high eighth win for ThorSport this season. That total includes four wins by ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards champion Frank Kimmel and Crafton's Truck Series score at Kansas in the spring. The appreciation easily flowed out of Sauter late Saturday afternoon in Alabama.
"This is awesome," Sauter said in an emotion-charged Victory Lane. "I'm so proud of everybody at ThorSport, Toyota, TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Triad (Racing Technologies, engine supplier), Carolina Nut, Curb Records, (owners) Duke and Rhonda Thorson, (listed owner) Mike Curb -- all these people that make this possible and Matt Crafton, especially.
Even better, the series next races at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where Sauter also won, in April, as he started the season with two wins and four consecutive top-five finishes. And while the victory was the first on a superspeedway for Connor, he has no less than 10 career Truck wins on tracks under a mile -- though he has none at Martinsville.