By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The 24th season of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has concluded, and it’ll go down as one of more storytelling seasons. From emerging drivers to heartbreaking losses, 2018 had its share of moments, and we’ll tackle 10 of them as the year winds down.
Today, we look at Part One of the best moments of the season in the Truck Series.
Lapped Traffic Enrages Johnny Sauter
Known to be competitive and vocal, Johnny Sauter was far from pleased with DGR-Crosley’s Bo LeMastus, who felt that he held him up and decimated his chances of winning the Active Pest Control 200 at Atlanta Feb. 24.
Sauter finished third behind Noah Gragson and race winner Brett Moffit, but it was the least of his concerns, saying less than pleasing words to the 54-year-old rookie.
“I don’t even know if he knows what day of the week it is,” Sauter said. “I’ve never seen such a squirrel in my whole life.”
The next race at Las Vegas, Justin Marks drove LeMastus’ No. 54 truck, where he brought the DGR-Crosley truck home in 11th. LeMastus would drive 10 more races, with only a 15th place finish at Chicagoland being his best effort all season.
Sauter on the other hand, would win five out of his six races since Atlanta, including back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Texas.
Despite equaling Moffitt with six wins, he would end up fourth in the championship standings after an ill-handling truck derailed his night in the finale at Homestead.
The Emergence of Justin Haley
No driver saw huge improvements than Justin Haley out of Winamac, Indiana, who went from being an afterthought 12th-place points man in 2017 to having one of the more impressive turnaround seasons in recent memory, finishing third in the final points tally.
The sophomore driver from the GMS Racing camp increased his stock by scoring three giant victories at Gateway, Bowmanville (Canadian Tire) and Texas that got him into the Championship 4.
Since scoring his maiden victory in late June, he’s finished in the top-10 in all but one race, becoming one of the most consistent drivers on the tour.
After finishing eighth at Homestead, the 2016 K&N East champion accredited his success to his entire team, and let faith decide his path in NASCAR.
“Obviously we had a good season and it was more than I expected. You just got to have faith,” said Haley. “Never give up. I think we’ve built a pretty good team behind us in the 24 camp. I think (crew chief) Kevin Bellicourt really formed a good group of guys behind us and I think that’s what led to most of our success.”
Haley’s nine top-fives and 18 top-10s from the 2018 campaign led Kaulig Racing to take notice on the young talent and will now run the No. 11 Chevrolet Camaro in the Xfinity Series full-time next season.
Vindication for Timothy Peters at Talladega
Since the closure of Red Horse Racing last season, Timothy Peters has struggled getting opportunities in NASCAR and has spent most of the time with family and racing late models.
Despite the setbacks, it hasn’t stopped him from scoring stellar results when an opportunity is given. Perhaps his biggest feat was bringing GMS Racing a huge victory at Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 13.
Driving the No. 25 Chevrolet Silverado, previously driven by Dalton Sargeant before being released in August, Peters survived the big wrecks including the last-lap mayhem when leader Noah Gragson attempted to block him for the race win.
Coming down the backstretch for the final time, Gragson’s block backfired as Peters never lifted off the throttle, and it sent him into the wall, causing a multi-truck wreck which resulted the 94-lap contest to end under caution.
Peters was shown as the race leader and proved to be the only lap he led, but it was the most important one. The 38-year-old veteran, who failed to qualify twice this season, scored his third Talladega victory, and his first since Phoenix in Nov. 2015.
“Everybody’s wanting to win,” said Peters. “Everybody’s wanting to block. I wanted to win, too, because this is my last go-around on the three-race stint. So, at the end of the day, I was going for it.
“These guys right here worked their butts off. It just feels so good, so good… Man, I love this place, and it’s so cool to be a three-time winner. But this is not about me. It’s about the team. This team put together this truck back at the shop, and I was just the lucky one who got to drive it today.”
Gragson, whose truck lifted in the carnage, ended up being the third highest playoff finisher in 13th. Whereas Peters made his latest start at Texas, scoring a tenth-place finish.
Wendell Chavous’ Last Ride Ends High
A driver that’s never scored a top-10, driving for a team that’s finished no better than seventh since 2015, suddenly became the most underrated story of the season. That was case for both Wendell Chavous and Premium Motorsports at Talladega Superspeedway.
The same race that Peters was victorious, the 33-year-old Georgian native brought the No. 49 Chevrolet achieved his biggest victory by coming home to a fifth-place result. Far exceeding their expectations after being one of the few trucks without any damage when he crossed the finish line.
Perhaps sweeter than both entities scoring their first top-five, was the fact that after 50 Truck Series races, Talladega was Chavous’ final NASCAR race.
He explained that family and owning a business were the main reasons why he wanted to exit the sport, and after getting out of his truck for the final time, he was ecstatic about his last ride.
“You just don’t know how great this is,” Chavous said. “Leaving the sport to take care of my family and business, and then get my best finish. Man, it’s just awesome.”
The Jay Robinson-owned team also bid farewell after Homestead, as they’ll shift their focus solely on their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series program in 2019.
The Monster Mile Conquers Noah Gragson
People can’t deny that Noah Gragson, for right or wrong reasons, is a human highlight reel. The series Most Popular Driver had his share of highs and lows in 2018, none so bigger than his costly error at “The Monster Mile” May 4.
In the closing laps, it was a classic Old School vs. New School battle between the then 19-year-old Gragson and 40-year-old Johnny Sauter.
The battle was shaping out to be a battle for the ages as neither driver was remorseful, notably on Lap 196 when Gragson squeezed Sauter at the exit of Turn 1 to clear him for the race lead. It became evident that it was going to take a simple mistake to dictate the outcome of the race.
The mistake came into fruition with on Lap 199 when Gragson was running bottom with Sauter having a huge run on top, creating a beating-and-banging battle entering Turn 3. Gragson tapped him twice, resulting his No. 18 Toyota to spin and backed it into the wall.
The incident forced the race to go into overtime, where Sauter held off Matt Crafton to win at Dover.
Sauter said Gragson gave him the drive to race aggressive and had no hard feelings towards him.
“We had to work for this one today,” Sauter said. “Noah, I had a good run on him there, and he squeezed me off. And I was like, ‘He just gave me the green light to be aggressive.’ This was just hard racing right there.”
A disgusted Gragson, who wound up in 20th, took full blame for the hard racing that wasn’t his way of competing for wins.
“I’m really disappointed in myself,” Gragson said. “It’s just a racing deal. These things are so hard to win, and I was so close to getting my first win (of the season). I went up to side-draft him and got pointed to the inside wall and went up to side-draft him again-and it was just a racing deal.
“Not the way I try to race people. I take full responsibility in that right there. It was a hundred percent my fault. It’s just unacceptable on my part. Man, I was so close to winning. All I can think about is just the mistake I made. I really wanted to get that monster (trophy). This is such a bad-ass track, and not to be able to get it done… I’m just devastated.”
Gragson bounced back big the following race at Kansas, scoring his only win of the season and ended up second in the final points standings.