HAMPTON, Ga. – The last two years have been a rebuilding process for ThorSport Racing, after the team endured a shop fire in 2016 that made just getting to the race track an accomplishment in itself.
However, Saturday night’s Ultimate Tailgating 200 made it clear that the Sandusky, Ohio-based team is back – and perhaps better than they’ve ever been.
Three of ThorSport’s four trucks finished inside the top five at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with former series champion Johnny Sauter leading the way with a runner-up finish in just his second race since rejoining Duke and Rhonda Thorson’s organization.
Two-time title winner Matt Crafton seemed destined to join that trio with a solid result, but an extra pit stop for a loose wheel after he was due to line up second with 15 to go derailed Crafton’s impressive run and relegated him to 14th at the checkered flag.
In spite of Crafton’s late issue, it was a huge day for ThorSport as a group.
Saturday marked a race in which all four trucks were legitimate contenders to win on a downforce track, and the quartet actually occupied the top four spots for a brief time Saturday on laps 59 and 60, the first time in team history that occurrence has happened.
ThorSport’s organizational strength didn’t escape Sauter’s notice, even as he was chasing eventual winner Kyle Busch in the final laps.
“It’s been awesome to be back with ThorSport, and I know as well as anyone that they’ve been working hard and they’re going to continue to work hard,” Sauter told SPEED SPORT. “Duke wants to win races; he’s as competitive of a guy as I am. … I saw my teammates’ speed at the end of last year, and as much as you’re working on your own stuff, you are paying attention to what’s going on around you.
“They’ve come back from a lot and I’m glad to be a part of it right now. This was good for all of us.”
Sauter gave it his all to steal the win away from Busch on the last restart, but didn’t have quite enough.
“I felt like I got a good launch on the last restart. I was pushing him (Busch); I was kind of hoping he would spin out, to be honest with you,” Sauter noted with a chuckle. “He did a great job of blocking, though. It was just enough to stall me out. It’s a bummer (not to win), but I’m really proud of this whole team for all their effort here. We had great speed on the short runs and this is a good way to start.”
Enfinger had to rally through the field to notch a third-place finish, but was equally impressed at the strength of ThorSport’s trucks across the board after climbing from his machine.
“I feel like this is probably the strongest run that all four (trucks) have had on a mile-and-a-half in the three years that I’ve been at ThorSport, and I think that says a lot,” said Enfinger. “I’m definitely proud of that for all of us, but man, we still have a ways to go to catch Kyle (Busch). He made us all look silly today.
“We were on both sides of the coin today, my truck was. We were good in the first two stints, but we lost track position and had to make some gains late,” Enfinger added. “We weren’t going to contend with Kyle on a legitimate run, so we still have some strides to make, but this is really positive for us.”
Rhodes, who crossed the line fifth, didn’t even realize that Sauter’s pass of Stewart Friesen on lap 59 put the ThorSport trucks first through fourth on the race track until his post-race interview on pit road.
The reason why? He was leading the race at the time.
“Were we running one through four? Whoo, that’s pretty good!” Rhodes grinned. “I’ll take that.
“I’m just proud for Duke and Rhonda and everyone back at the race shop,” he added. “To see that speed for our team, right off the bat, is huge because they put so much work into these trucks. There’s obviously more that we can do better – Kyle and the KBM trucks were pretty fast tonight – but this is good.
“Until we’re finishing one through four, we can always be better, but this showed the strength of our team.”
Before walking away into the Georgia night, Rhodes left one resounding statement hanging in the air.
“We’re back, for sure,” Rhodes said emphatically. “There’s a lot of unity in how strong a driver lineup we have and we’re learning a lot as a team. We’re not going away.”