Johnny Sauter loves to race, but he doesn't love to race in an arena where he has little chance of winning.
So Sauter has little desire to return to NASCAR's Cup Series if it's not in a solid ride. He's been there, albeit not for as long as he might have wanted when he took over the Richard Childress Racing No. 30 car in 2004. He has 85 Cup starts to his credit, with a career-best fifth at Richmond in September 2007.
It was a long road for Sauter on the way to his first NASCAR championship, which he captured in 2016 by winning the Camping World Truck Series title.
"I'm not happy not running well," Sauter said. "If I can't be competitive, I don't want to do it. The Cup deal is tough, obviously ultracompetitive. The thing that kept me going that one year we ran full time is a couple of decent finishes like Richmond."
After winning the 2001 American Speed Association title, Sauter made his NASCAR debut that year with Richard Childress in what is now the Xfinity Series and competed full time in the series from 2002 through 2006.
His foray into Cup was brutal. After just 13 races, Sauter was out of the ride at RCR while still competing full time in Xfinity for team owner Clarence Brewer. Just a year earlier, Sauter had helped RCR win the Xfinity owners title in its No. 21 car.
Sauter has three Xfinity Series wins for three different owners. He won in 2002 at Chicagoland driving for Richard Childress, in 2003 at Richmond driving for Agajanian Motorsports and in 2005 at Milwaukee driving for team owner James Finch.
In 2007, Sauter drove for Haas CNC Racing in Cup, and he spent 2008 jumping around without a full-time ride. In 2009, he finally found a home at ThorSport Racing in the trucks with help from Agajanian co-owner Mike Curb.
He spent seven years with the team until making the move in 2016 to GMS Racing. He has competed in only nine Xfinity races and nine Cup races since 2009 but has piled up 13 truck victories, finishing second in points in 2011 and fourth in the standings for three consecutive years before 2016.
"It's been a long time [in NASCAR], had some successful years along the way, had some years that you kind of want to forget about for various reasons," Sauter said. "But we've been pretty competitive in the Truck series, and quite frankly I felt like I was competitive in the Busch [Xfinity] Series ... and had some decent runs in Cup.
"But it's very hard to get all the pieces of the puzzle put together. It's not just the driver."
Guiding Sauter on and off through it all has been Joe Shear Jr., his crew chief for the ASA championship and the truck title. Shear and Sauter have seemed to click when together, but Shear has been a journeyman crew chief even more than Sauter has been a journeyman driver.
Shear joined Sauter during the 2016 season in June after starting the year working with rookie Cole Custer at JR Motorsports.
"We just always go race to race to win everything that we can, and ... we always give it 110 percent," Shear said. "It falls where it falls. We always try, but it takes a lot of effort to do this, and it takes a lot of people, and the people that you surround yourself to get to this point in life."
Even his biggest rivals could appreciate the Sauter road to the championship.
"To see Johnny come up short in 2011 ... and for him to get it this year, he's very deserving," said his former ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton. "He works very hard and is very determined and a great race car driver."
That determination creates an at-track persona as fiery as any in the garage. One time when frustrated after a race and a NASCAR call on a restart that cost him the win, all Sauter could say was "God bless America."
"I'm going with Johnny Sauter because he's awesome," said Cup driver Joey Logano when asked before the championship race which driver he wanted to win the trucks. "How do you not root for Johnny Sauter? God bless America. That guy is aggressive. I love watching him."
Crafton was happy to see an old-school racer get the big trophy.
"I like Sauter off the racetrack; he's just an a--h--- to race with on the racetrack," Crafton said. "I'm sure he feels the same way about me. ... As soon as we take off our helmets, we're great friends. Besides that, we really don't like each other.
"That's the old-school racer in us."
But Sauter is a family man in addition to being an old-school racer. He said he has no interest in trying to make another run at Cup racing because it would force him to raise his family (he has three kids) on the road and he doesn't want to do that.
He'll be happy racing for wins in trucks as well as in select late-model races in the Wisconsin area.
"I run quite a bit with the late-model stuff -- I love that type of racing," Sauter said. "I think about that a lot, how to make my stuff better and how to be better.
"I just like racing in general."
Actually, he likes racing to win in general.
"[For] racers, one good run can last awhile. But that grind of consecutive weeks where you're not competing and not running well [is tough]," Sauter said. "I want to run good.
"I don't care what it is, if it's a street stock or a Sprint Cup car, I'm not just happy to be there to say that I was there. That, to me, doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot."