Johnny Sauter wanted to win this race, maybe as badly as any other.
Sauter won the season-opening NASCAR Truck Series race Friday night and dedicated it to crew chief Joe Shear Jr., whose wife died unexpectedly in late December.
“I didn't have one nerve,” said Sauter, who finished second in points in 2017. “I just felt like this was our day.”
The team felt like it had some help. Chandra Shear died Dec. 28 at her home in Mooresville, North Carolina, age 43.
“This is very, very, very special here,” Shear said. “She was in love with racing as much as I was. She was looking over us and helped us to this win. I'll never forget this one.”
Neither will Sauter, who notched his series-leading third victory at the famed track and made it three in a row for GMS Racing at Daytona. Sauter won in 2016, and Kaz Grala did the same last year.
Sauter used a big run to pass David Gilliland for the lead with eight laps to go and then held off Justin Haley, Joe Nemechek, Ben Rhodes and Scott Lagasse Jr. None of those chasers provided much of a challenge down the stretch.
It was Sauter's 18th victory in 222 starts in the Truck Series. He also won at Daytona in 2013.
But this one was for Shear, who said coming to Daytona “kept me sane.”
“Getting back on the road and getting back to work was the biggest thing that kept me going,” Shear said. “It's sad and I think about her all the time.”
Sauter took the No. 21 Chevrolet to victory lane after a series of late crashes wiped out about half the 32-truck field. Only 15 trucks finished on the lead lap, and only nine of those were in the lead pack in the closing laps.
The single-file racing made it considerably easier for Sauter to hold off the competition.
Neither Grala nor defending series champion Christopher Bell was in the race. Grala and Bell moved up to the Xfinity Series this season.
Jennifer Jo Cobb took the hardest hit of the night. Cobb slammed into an inside retaining wall, one protected by energy-absorbing barriers, at close to full speed. Her No. 10 Chevrolet broke upon impact, igniting a brief fire. Cobb climbed out holding her left arm. She was treated and eventually released from the infield care center.
Grant Enfinger started the multi-truck melee when his No. 98 Ford got loose and turned in front of a crowded pack. Lagasse, Dalton Sargeant and Scott Stenzel also were involved.