- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Johnny Sauter has seen the seemingly endless debate from both sides of the fence. So even though he's a Busch Series regular now, he understands why so many Nextel Cup drivers run in his series on a weekly basis.
After all, in 2004, Sauter was trying to do the same thing. He opened the year in Richard Childress Racing's No. 30 Cup car while driving in the Busch Series for Brewco Motorsports. The thing is, the Cup campaign didn't go as planned and he parted ways with RCR that June.
Sauter made three more Cup starts that season and 10 last year. But the 27-year-old has focused on the Busch Series, this year with Haas CNC Racing. Eighth in points after eight races, he has the second-best standing among drivers not also running the entire Nextel Cup schedule.
So it would be understandable if Sauter now wished the interlopers would stay in Cup and give him the chance to have a better shot at the Busch Series crown. Sauter, though, knows there are two sides to the issue.
"At the end of the day, it is the NASCAR Busch Series, its 25th season, which is remarkable in and of itself. But the Nextel Cup guys bring a little bit of star power, a little bit of corporate money to the NASCAR Busch Series," Sauter said. "At the end of the day, [Cup drivers are] using it as a test. Somebody said the other day, why don't they take the points and money away from them?
"At the end of the day, I think you're still going to see the Nextel Cup guys over there in the Busch Series racing. The way that testing is right now, it's a pretty good balance or a pretty good [chance] to prove the balance of these cars, and these guys can learn a lot about tires and things like that. On the flip side of that, it just makes it tough for the independent [Busch Series teams]. That's the nature of the beast. That's what we've got to work with. You can't get ahead looking at what everybody else is doing; you got to focus on your own program and just keep your nose to the grindstone and keep going at it."
Cup veteran Michael Waltrip delivered a solid performance and finished 10th in his debut with Brewco Motorsports at Nashville. His attitude backs up Sauter's analysis of why the Cup drivers show up for a Busch event when they could be on vacation.
"I just appreciate driving good cars," Waltrip said after the race.
For all practical purposes heading into the Pepsi 300, Sauter was sixth in points among drivers planning to run the full schedule; sixth-place Greg Biffle wasn't at Nashville.
And although Sauter's not running in Cup this year, his Harold Holly-led team does benefit from the fact that Haas CNC Racing fields a Cup team with Jeff Green behind the wheel. And the team has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, so Sauter usually has solid engines under the hood.
Kevin Harvick was 267 points ahead of Sauter and in first place heading into Nashville, but the Wisconsin native -- who races against brothers Jay and Tim in the Busch Series -- doesn't see the gap as insurmountable. However, Harvick won Saturday and Sauter finished a disappointing 27th. The points gap now stands at 370.
"We believe we can beat the Cup guys week in and week out," Sauter said before Saturday's race. "This is a new deal, me coming over there, getting to work with these new guys. We're seven races into it; we're seventh in points right now. [At this point in 2005,] Martin Truex, I think, was 300-some points out of the lead last year, and he was sixth in points. We're a hundred points closer to the point lead right now. That just reconfirms my belief that we can make a run for this championship."
Truex used a hot streak to win his second consecutive title, so Sauter doesn't see why he can't do the same thing. It did take some time for Sauter -- who has three career Busch wins to his credit but was coming off a tough Cup stint in '04 -- to get back to believing he can be a force, though.
"The reason for the confidence change is I think I'm a lot more comfortable in myself as a race car driver," Sauter said. "I've been around the block a time or two now, have been to these racetracks, have pretty much encountered every scenario you could come across as far as crashing, blowing tires, blowing engines.
"The confidence comes from obviously Harold Holly, the success he's had as a crew chief in the NASCAR Busch Series; Haas CNC, Gene Haas [is] awesome [and gives us] plenty of resources to work with; obviously our affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports [helps]. Hendrick horsepower, that never hurts anybody. It's just a total package. When you feel like you got the total package, obviously they always say when confidence is up, grip is up, and that's just the way it is.
"I'm pretty confident in everything we got going on, and I absolutely think we can still make a legitimate run at the title."
If Sauter does make a run at the title, he'll be doing so in a year he believes is the most competitive he has seen. With a number of Cup teams fielding programs, and established stand-alone Busch Series teams, there's no arguing the series' depth is strong.
"When I first came to the series [running the full schedule for the first time in 2002], there was your selected few teams. I always usually used to say there were 20 teams that could win on a given week," Sauter said. "Now I actually believe there's 30 to 35 teams that can win week in and week out. Obviously, that raises the bar on the competition side of everything.
"As long as you feel like your team and yourself can rise to the occasion, that's what this is all about. As far as the NASCAR Busch Series, this is pretty overwhelming I think for the Busch regulars, especially the independent teams. But like I said, that's the cards we're dealt. I'm having a lot of fun with it."
He'd be having even more fun if he were closing the gap on Harvick, but he thinks his time to shine will be in the near future and again in June, when the full-time Cup drivers will be traveling back and forth from Cup venues to Busch venues, possibly missing some Busch practice sessions.
"The time to make our ground up is going to be in the summer months when those guys are trying to do double duty back and forth," Sauter said. "Milwaukee is obviously one of those racetracks I feel like I can capitalize pretty good. Another five or six races, we're going to be able to capitalize.
"Another area where I think we capitalize pretty big is the short tracks coming up. We have Phoenix coming up, which I always seem to run well at. Richmond, obviously. I seem to run a little bit better at the short tracks a lot of times and, you know, [those] are going to be our two strongholds."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
Having been a Cup driver himself, Johnny Sauter knows why the big league regulars haunt the Busch Series, writes Mark Ashenfelter.