Dennis Connor, a three-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, has joined ThorSport Racing as Johnny Sauter’s crew chief for the No. 98 Carolina Nut Co. / Curb Records Toyota, effective immediately.
Connor, who was with Sauter and his crew last weekend at Pocono Raceway as an observer, has an exemplary career statistical record including the series’ standard for championships by a crew chief, which he won with Jack Sprague at Hendrick Motorsports in 1997, 1999 and 2001.
Connor and Sprague, whose passion and volatility are akin to Sauter’s demeanor, were a particularly effective combination. They paired for 24 consecutive top-10 finishes in the last 12 races of Sprague’s first championship year and halfway into 1998. In Sprague’s final title year Connor prepared trucks in which Sprague qualified in the top 10 every race, with a season qualifying average of 3.5. The pair had two other qualifying streaks of 22 and 23 consecutive top-10 starts, both coming between 1997-1999.
Connor’s other significant statistical marks include the second-most career victories by a crew chief in the 19-year-old series’ history, 26, a 40-percent ratio of top-five finishes, a 58-percent ratio of top-10 finishes, a 76-percent ratio of lead-lap finishes and a 90-percent ratio of races running at the finish in all his 278 career starts.
Connor joins a team that won the 2013 season’s first two races, at Daytona and Martinsville, and scored top-five finishes in the first four events. But a technical violation and 25-point penalty incurred at Kansas and wrecks in which Sauter was an innocent victim in three of their last seven races have put them in 10th in the championship standings, 84 points behind ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton.
“I’m extraordinarily enthused after being fortunate enough to get a chance to stand back and take a look at everything that was going on at Pocono,” Connor said. “I saw a nice truck that was very well-prepared and a spectacular driver who’s definitely capable of getting the job done, in my opinion, anywhere we go.
“I was very impressed with the crew and I think all of the components to have a consistently winning race team are in place. If we can tweak it up just a little bit and get everybody working on the same page it’s going to make the entire ThorSport organization better.”
Sauter, who has eight wins — all with ThorSport — in 119 career Truck Series starts, shares his new crew chief’s enthusiasm.
“I guess the biggest thing that makes me comfortable in working with Dennis is he’s been at ThorSport before, so he knows how things work and that will help him get up to speed really quickly,” Sauter said. “We all know what Dennis has done in the Truck Series, it’s impressive and I think he’ll be a real good complement to the guys on our team.
“I’ve always felt really good and confident about my team and I would stack them up against any team in the garage. So for Dennis to come in for one weekend and immediately feel the same way about them gives me a real positive feeling.”
The Truck Series has a weekend off before it has five races in 28 days, beginning with an event at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 17 through a Sept. 13 race at Chicagoland Speedway.
“Obviously, we have to get trucks prepared, not only for Michigan but also for Bristol and the road course — there’s a tremendous amount of work that has to be done,” Connor said. “It’s going to be a lot of hours and a lot of midnight oil, as they say, but for me it’s going to be a lot of seeing exactly how the procedures work around here and what the right way of doing things is, to make everyone not look at me as an outsider but as a helpful teammate.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the guys on the 98 team as well as I possibly can — and the rest of my teammates as well — during this little bit of time off from racing. Where you usually have two or three months to get prepared during the off-season, I’ve got about a week to get prepared for a tough stretch of the season.
“It’s going to be a challenge but my life’s always been built around challenges and in some cases I’ve done pretty good with them.”
Connor, who most recently worked on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East program at Rev Racing for diversity drivers Ryan Gifford and Jorge Arteaga in 2012, feels he has everything he needs to succeed at the current ThorSport, where he formerly worked.
Connor was Tracy Hines’ crew chief at the end of 2004 and then was ThorSport’s competition director in 2005. Connor was Shelby Howard’s crew chief on the No. 13 truck in 2008, when the team was housed in its old shop. ThorSport’s state-of-the-art shop that opened in August 2011 is 100,000 square feet and Connor saw it for the first time when he returned from Pocono.
“When I came into the shop on Saturday night the first thing I thought was that the pictures that are on the (ThorSport.com) Web site don’t do it justice,” Connor said. “It’s absolutely magnificent, much larger than I had imagined it to be and there’s no piece of equipment you need that isn’t here, so I can’t see that we’re lacking anything to have a great program.”
Connor will work with truck chief Jesse Saunders, a third-year ThorSport employee who was promoted into the crew chief’s right-hand position at the start of this season. Saunders served as co-crew chief for Sauter with former truck chief Dan LeMasters at several events this season in place of suspended former crew chief Joe Shear Jr.