Sauter appears headed for RYR's No. 88 next season
Posted: Friday November 24, 2006 2:06PM; Updated: Friday November 24, 2006 2:06PM
Johnny Sauter will have an opportunity to drive full time in the Nextel Cup series next season.
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRE
The stars appear to have lined up perfectly for Johnny Sauter to drive Robert Yates Racing's No. 88 Ford Fusion in the Nextel Cup Series next season.
Sauter has the inside track to the only car without a driver in the top 35 in the Nextel Cup owner points, guaranteeing a position in the Daytona 500 and the next four races in 2007.
Yates is also talking to Ricky Rudd, who doesn't want to compete full time. Unless Yates can induce the 50-year-old Rudd into changing his mind -- and it seems unlikely -- the No. 88 belongs to Sauter. They're the only two drivers under consideration.
Sauter isn't a No. 1 or 2 draft choice. He's a No. 3, the best available at this late date and with enough potential to post a few top 10s and keep the No. 88 in the top 20 in the points. It was 22nd this season with Dale Jarrett, who bolted for Michael Waltrip's Toyota team and sponsor UPS followed.
Yates spent the summer scrambling to keep the No. 88 alive. It is a proud number for Yates and Ford, integral to the team's heritage. Yates formed the 88 in 1995 and Jarrett has been its only driver. He won 30 races and the '99 Cup championship.
Robby Gordon, who switched to Ford for next season, tried to buy the No. 88. It would have been a perfect fit, equipment and a qualifying-guaranteed position for Daytona for a second car. John Menard was likely the financial force behind the offer, putting son Paul into the car. The deal was close and fell apart for unexplained reasons and Paul will move up to full-time Cup with DEI, his Busch and part-time Cup team, next season.
DEI also was interested in Yates. They wanted the whole operation, including the race shop, and it would have cost Ford one of its primary teams. Yates didn't want to sell out and go into forced retirement.
Finally, at Homestead-Miami, Yates said he had a sponsor. It's expected another Mars candy brand. Yates' No. 38, driven by David Gilliland in the second half of the season and returning next year, is sponsored by M&Ms. It has two more seasons on its contract with Yates.
"Everything is agreed to and we're good to go," Yates said. "I didn't know about this until recently. Things were up in the air and that was making me look at a lot of different things, but I'm so happy and excited that we've got an opportunity to get our act together and I believe we can."
Mars undoubtedly got a sweetheart deal. Ford couldn't afford to lose another team and, despite the company's overall financial problems, is probably paying a large chunk of the tab.
Sauter has been on the fringe of the Cup since '03, when he made five starts for Morgan-McClure. He has 32 career starts with a best of ninth at Phoenix in '5. He drove in one Cup race this season, starting 12th and finishing 14th in a second car for Haas CNC Racing.
The Wisconsin native has three wins in Busch, most recently in '05 at Milwaukee. He was eighth in the Busch points this season. Six of the seven in front of him were Cup regulars. He's 28 years old, ostensibly with his best years ahead.