By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
There were only two drivers that entered Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix locked into the Championship 4, both of whom drive for GMS Racing, and it was far from a positive for seventh-place finisher Johnny Sauter and 28th place Justin Haley.
Despite having a consistent night in the top-10, it was anything but satisfying by Sauter, who struggled with the balance of his No. 21 ISM Connect Chevrolet Silverado all race long. Not only he had that to battle in the 150-lap contest, Sauter also lacked grip and ultimately settled for his 17th top-10, equaling Haley’s mark for most top-10s this season with one race remaining.
The 2016 champion was dissatisfied with his truck the moment it unloaded off the hauler, and with two sub-par results in the Round of 6, it raised concerns as to what’s wrong with their performances after winning a season-high six races.
“We just struggled all day,” said Sauter. “From the word go right off the truck, no balance, loose and you try to work that out of it and then it would just get into plowing. At the beginning of the race, I was sideways. Then we made one round of wedge in the left rear and then it went into just absolutely chattering through the front tires.
“So we took that back out, and then the last half of the race, we were sideways again. So there was no balance, no grip. I’m not sure what we’re not doing, but we kind of sucked at Texas, and we kind of sucked tonight. If we do that again next week, it won’t be good.”
As for the 20-year-old sophomore, he led the GMS Racing banner for much of the night, finishing 6th and 4th in the stages. However, Haley’s night would prematurely after his No. 24 Fraternal Order of Eagles began to leak fluid under caution that was brought out by a John Hunter Nemechek, who spun in Turn 4 on Lap 129. Haley’s truck began spreading fluid all over the one-mile circuit, forcing NASCAR to stop the race.
It’s Haley’s first retirement since the third race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and also ends a 12-race streak of scoring top-10 finishes where all three of his victories, including last week at Texas to lock him into his first Championship 4 berth, took place in that span.
“Just an oil line got cut on the soft line from a piece of debris hit it,” Haley on the cause of his night ending after completing 131 laps.
Despite racking up stellar numbers that got him deep into the Camping World Truck Series playoffs, Haley’s 2019 plans remain unknown, and hopes that capturing the title may keep him off the couch which he hopes it’s not the case.
“I do not have plans for next year,” said Haley. “Obviously, chasing a championship is going to be helpful. If we get the championship, it’ll try to secure some of the stuff I got working for next year. I’m not going to be sitting on a couch, I hope not, but nothing to announce right now.”
With Matt Crafton eliminated, Sauter is the only man to have qualified in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway since the playoffs was introduced in Trucks two years ago.
The 40-year-old veteran said he’s not worried about Haley, Brett Moffitt and Noah Gragson, but rather himself as he’ll do his best to bring home his second championship after coming up a spot short of beating Christopher Bell last season.
“I’m not even worried about these guys,” said Sauter. “I know that I have to worry about myself and worry about my truck, and get it driving and get the balances as best as I can. If we do that, and we race right and race smart all night, we should have a good shot at it. At the end of the day, if you go down there and you put your best effort forth, and you come up short, that’s just the way it is.
“Last year was one spot short, one point, and you do your best. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. I don’t think these guys could care less about me racing hard because everybody races hard all the time.”
GMS Racing will seek for their second championship with either Sauter or Haley in the finale at Homestead for the running of the Ford EcoBoost 200 Nov. 16.