For Necedah, Wisconsin’s Johnny Sauter, being a rookie last year wasn’t so bad after all.  Sauter, winless in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, came to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2009 to compete in the Smith’s 350. He left Las Vegas a winner and went on to earn Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the Truck Series.

He returns to LVMS for Saturday’s Smith’s 350 as the event’s defending champion and is rated in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Race and Sports Book at 7-to-1 to repeat the feat.

Prior to his 2009 Smith’s 350 victory, Sauter had won dozens of races in the ASA series (and also a championship in 2001), but he wasn’t a household name in the major leagues of NASCAR. His win in Las Vegas was extra special for a variety of reasons.

“I never gave up on myself being a winner because I have always known I can do it, but I think I saw the opportunities to do it drying up,” Sauter admitted. “I came off a season in the (Sprint) Cup Series in 2008 and at the end of it I didn’t have anything, and you’re sitting there asking yourself, ‘What just happened?’ So when the opportunity came to join ThorSport Racing in 2009 I jumped at it. I knew it was a really good team and knew we would have a good chance to win races and Las Vegas last year was the first of what we all hope is many.

“It doesn’t matter what the series is – whether it’s the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Camping World Truck Series or Late Models somewhere – every race is really hard to win. Every win that I have had means a lot to me, for different reasons. The win at Las Vegas last year was important because I did have all of that uncertainty in my career and it validated what I always thought, that I could be a winner if we just had the opportunity and equipment.”

It goes without saying that Las Vegas occupies a special place in Johnny’s heart.

“We definitely celebrated big time last year. I think the thing we learned is that at some point you don’t have to party for 24 hours straight, otherwise you probably won’t remember what you’re celebrating! In all honesty though, there really isn’t a better place to win than Las Vegas. Everyone is out there for an extra day and there are so many things to do out there so any celebrating you get to do is going to be big.”

Johnny was asked how different the truck and team are from the machinery and personnel that visited victory lane in LVMS’s Neon Garage last Sept.

“We really haven’t had to make too many changes to it in the two years I’ve been driving it. We might have had to put a nose on it or a fender on it after scraping it up somewhere, but we haven’t had to clip it or do any real significant repairs to it. We’ve run that particular truck probably 20 times in the past two seasons and it’s just a really comfortable, competitive truck. Race drivers are always talking about wanting the newest piece they can get but this truck was built in 2007. Sure, we’d like to have as many new trucks as we can get but we’d also like them all to be as good as this one is.”

Qualifying is set for 3:15 p.m. Saturday. Driver introductions are scheduled to take place at 6 p.m., followed by the Smith’s 350 at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets for the Smith’s 350 may be purchased by calling LVMS at (702) 644-4444 or online at www.LVMS.com. Follow LVMS on Facebook and Twitter.