Only 16 races into his first year with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, Elliott Sadler felt as if his No. 1 Chevrolet team already was meeting every expectation.
“If you had a list of boxes you had to check for a season, especially for your sponsor, we feel like we have checked every box,” said Sadler, who is ranked second in points with 13 top 10s and a playoff-securing victory at Talladega Superspeedway. “It’s been a great season. We’ve won. We’ve been a part of the championship chase. We’re running good enough to be on TV and in contention to make something good happen every week. So from a competitive standpoint, it’s been awesome.”
From a business standpoint, though, the news wasn’t so good. The night before the July 1 race at Daytona International Speedway, Sadler received a call that longtime primary sponsor OneMain wouldn’t return for 2017.
For the Emporia, Virginia, driver, whose cars have carried the company’s colors for more than five years, the news came as a shocking blow – particularly given his results this season and JRM’s reputation as an Xfinity Series mainstay known for its innovative approach to digital platforms, such as its podcasting network.
OneMain was sold last year by Citigroup to Springleaf Holdings, and it isn’t unusual for companies to abandon NASCAR sponsorships after management changes. Dollar General, which named a new CEO last year, announced earlier this season it would be leaving the Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup ride of Matt Kenseth because of a shift in marketing priorities.
OneMain didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
“I think they want to go in a different direction than what racing is,” Sadler said. “They didn’t share a lot with me other than that part of it.”
His team’s focus now shifts toward trying to win the inaugural Xfinity Series’ inaugural Chase for the Championship, which will begin in late September with Sadler firmly in the 12-driver field for the seven-race playoff.
Sadler, who has been friends with JRM co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. for over two decades, dating back to their days of racing Late Models together, hopes a championship would shore up his prospects for staying put. The 41-year-old, who made his first Xfinity start in 1995, believes this season has shown he is competitive enough to keep racing.
“The future is 100 percent uncertain with all this happening, but if I could get a blank sheet of paper and write down a wish list, it’d be to still race with JR Motorsports moving forward,” Sadler said. “It’s a great company, and off the track, they offer stuff no other team has with social media and digital consumption. Dale and I have been friends since we were teenagers, and that has made the season so special.
“We kind of looked each other in the eyes last year and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to win races with each other?’ We’ve done that. That’s what made the phone call so hard to take, but I’ve got to look at the flip side of it. There’s so many positives going on with this year, it was definitely sad to get that phone call, but man, we’ve got unfinished business. We’ve got to do a lot of little things to get where we need to win the championship. But we’re close where we need to be.”
In a statement, JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller said the team wants to maintain three Chevys again next season. JRM also fields the No. 7 for Justin Allgaier and a No. 88 that is split between several drivers.
“Obviously we were disappointed to hear that OneMain will end its longtime NASCAR presence but understand their reasons and respect their decision,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed their partnership – they’ve been nothing but class – and will continue to work hard to win a championship with our No. 1 team and Elliott Sadler.
“As for JR Motorsports, our goal for 2017 is to continue to run three full-time teams in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Hopefully we can do that. This is a business, and sponsorship drives the business. We’re already working hard to secure the funding we need to race three teams. I like what JR Motorsports has to offer. We’re as competitive as we’ve ever been, and we deliver value far beyond the track.”
That also has been a plus for Sadler, an affable driver whose knack as a corporate spokesman attuned to keeping sponsors satisfied has helped him race full-time in Xfinity since 2011 after a 1999-2010 stint in Sprint Cup.
CitiFinancial initially backed an Xfinity car for Sadler at Robert Yates Racing in 2005, beginning a relationship that grew into his current sponsorship deal. OneMain has followed Sadler to five teams in the past six seasons. He held the sponsorship with Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2011, Richard Childress Racing in 2012, Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013-14 and Roush Fenway Racing last season.
“It’s the way of the world sometimes,” Sadler said about the sponsor’s departure. “I’ve got so many calls and text messages from friends I’ve made over the years with OneMain that it’s pretty special to hear from everybody. But it was definitely hard when I was told of the news.”
With Xfinity drivers increasingly needing to have sponsor ties in order to land rides, Sadler said there is urgency to post results that will attract new business partners.
“The business model has definitely changed in our sport,” he said. “The drivers with the sponsors have a better chance of getting a full-time ride. We understand that. That’s what makes it so key to me these last 17 races. We have to run good and try to win races and end everything as good as we possibly can end it. We’ve got to go with a full head of steam here to November.
“We want to win that championship. The news coming out to me kind of put it in perspective. We’ve got to show up ready to race each week to keep our name in the middle of it, so we’re going to do it.”