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Elliott Sadler, Brendan Gaughan relish ‘messing up the bell curve’ of Xfinity playoff drivers

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Before Tuesday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff media day got into full swing, the 12 competitors gathered for a family photo.

While waiting for the portrait to be taken, Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan couldn’t help but laugh.

“We joked and looked and said, ‘We got the kid’s table on the right and the grownups on the left. We put the above 30 age and the below 30’,” Gaughan said. “Not afraid to make fun of it. I’m having a great time. I love racing with the kids.”

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“Kids” is appropriate.

Sadler and Gaughan, born four months apart in 1975, are the oldest drivers in the Xfinity playoffs by 10 years over Jeremy Clements (January 1985).

Five of the playoff drivers – Ryan Reed, Matt Tifft, Cole Custer and William Byron – are young enough to be their children, if they didn’t already have two children.

Tifft (1996), Byron (1997) and Custer (1998), were all born after Sadler made his first Xfinity Series start on July 29, 1995 at South Boston Speedway in Virginia.

Custer was born in January 1998, the same year Sadler made his Cup debut in the Coke 600 and Gaughan made his in the final Japan exhibition race in November.

“Isn’t that cool?” Sadler said before asking jokingly, “What the hell are you trying to say?”

Tick, tick, tick, tick…

“Hey look, I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Sadler, who has 813 NASCAR points starts across the three national series. “I think a lot of guys would like to be in this sport as long I’ve been doing it, especially growing up as a fan in southern Virginia. Actually, I’m cherishing this moment.”

The moment in question sees the 42-year-old driver pursuing what he views as his “best opportunity” to earn a NASCAR title if he can avoid any mistakes, even though he’s “at least going to be running a couple more years.”

Driver of JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet, he enters the postseason as the regular-season champion. That award wasn’t given out last year when Sadler led the points after the regular-season finale at Chicagoland and made it all the way to the championship race.

The only difference between this year and last is Sadler hasn’t won a race yet. Last weekend at Chicagoland, Sadler finished third for his 11th top five of the season.

“I’ve never gotten an award like that for a regular-season championship or any kind of trophy in NASCAR and felt as bad as I felt Saturday,” Sadler said. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. That race hurt Saturday.

“But like I told my crew chief (Kevin Meendering) yesterday morning, that might have been the best thing to happen to me from a mental side because there’s somethings I know I need to clean up and get better on heading into the playoffs.”

For Gaughan, the playoffs and their elimination format were a needed punch in the arm.

Gaughan, driver of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 62 Chevrolet, is in his 15th full-time season and his sixth in Xfinity.

Despite K&N Pro Series West titles in 2000 and 2001, the closest the Las Vegas native has gotten to a national series championship was finishing fourth in the Truck Series in 2003.

“I think this new format is what really breathed life into the guys like me and Elliott,” Gaughan said. “Elliott, it probably pisses him off. It really breathed life into what I like because you can have those few mistakes. In the old days … Elliott would have had a X-amount point lead, maybe a couple of guys had a chance to battle him for it. It was few and far between the years like the ’03 truck year where you had four guys going into the last race with a legitimate chance at a championship.

“I think this playoff format has really done a lot, not just to invigorate the fans, not just you guys in the media, but even the drivers. Hell, any other year we’ve just be sitting here saying, ‘Oh well, OK what are we doing for next year and what are we going to try and get better at?’ Now, we’re saying, ‘Hey, the playoffs are here. We got a chance to win this thing.'”

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Tick, tick, tick, tick…

Gaughan hears it. The word “retirement” is mentioned around him on a regular basis.

He doesn’t care.

Even if it is a little bit harder to make those red-eye flights from Las Vegas to Charlotte for a one-day promotional tour.

During his trip east for Tuesday’s media obligations, Gaughan made sure to take a moment to appreciate what he was doing.

“I said, ‘You know, sometimes you’ve got to take a breath and remember there’s a lot of kids in the world that would kill to do what I get to do,'” Gaughan said. “And I have a lot of fun still doing it. I still appreciate it. Having young teammates I think helps me a ton. Having Brandon (Jones) and Daniel (Hemric) and both the (Austin and Ty) Dillon boys being so much younger. … It’s kept me feeling young. It’s kept me happy doing that.”

Though Gaughan hasn’t made a decision on whether he’ll continue as a full-time driver next season, he’s adamant that he’ll be happy either way. Racing won’t disappear from his routine.

“I’m going to race forever,” Gaughan said. “No matter what, retirement is never a word that’s for me. I’m going to go race in the desert again when I get done and I’ll go race in sports cars. I’ll be racing something somewhere because I love racing. I hope I’m still racing full-time. I’m not really putting a lot of pressure or worry about it. … I’ve never put a ton of pressure on that. I don’t care. If it happens tomorrow, it happens tomorrow.”

But what if this is it? What if the next seven races are Gaughan and Sadler’s last, best shot at being immortalized as a NASCAR champion?

Unlike other sports, auto racing allows its competitors to start young and stick around late, though the backend of that spectrum has been shrinking in the last decade. The days of drivers like Mark Martin and Terry Labonte racing competitively into their late 40s or early 50s are receding in the rear-view mirror.

For Gaughan and Sadler, even if both of them were to come back full-time, there’s no guarantee they’d enjoy a competition level that would see them reach the playoffs or a late playoff round.

“Earlier in my career I don’t know if I really appreciated the opportunities I was given,” said Sadler, who competed for Wood Brothers Racing, Robert Yates Racing and Evernham Motorsports in the Cup Series before returning full-time to the Xfinity Series in 2011.

Since then, Sadler has finished second in the Xfinity standings three times while competing for Roush Fenway Racing, Kevin Harvick Inc. and Richard Childress Racing.

“I think a little part of me will always be empty if I have to walk away from the sport without a championship,” Sadler said last weekend after being awarded his regular-season championship trophy. “I think I would like to have that to fulfill my dreams and my wishes of the hard work I’ve put into this sport. Yes, you can pretty much say I need to win a championship before I retire to feel like I’ve accomplished everything I want to accomplish as a person, as a dad, as a father and as a race car driver.”

No matter how long they’re still competitors on the track, Sadler says he and Gaughan will relish in the fact they’re “messing up the bell curve” when it comes to discussions about the age of the average NASCAR driver.

“Brendan and I both want to compete and want to try to win,” Sadler said. “We still want to be NASCAR champions. Both of us have been very, very close in our careers at different stages. Both of us, you want to kind of go out on top if you know you’re getting close to the end of your racing career.”

NASCAR: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Daniel Hemric gets unexpected introduction to Cup car at Charlotte road course test (video)

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Being a native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, a lot of Daniel Hemric‘s racing firsts are connected to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The 26-year-old Xfinity Series driver got another one this week when an unexpected call shortened a vacation to Mexico and put him in a Cup car for the first time.

Hemric, who drives Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet in his rookie season, was visiting the country as part of a birthday vacation for his wife, Kenzie.

“As soon as the wheels touched down I got a call from some guys a RCR asking ‘Hey, would you mind driving a Cup car Tuesday at a test?'” Hemric said Wednesday.

“Do I need to fly home right now or what?” Hemric responded.

Come Tuesday morning, Hemric was sitting in the cockpit of Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet as one of four drivers taking part in the first Goodyear tire test on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, a 2.42-mile, 18-turn circuit made up of most of the original 1.5-mile track and the infield road course.

MORE: Cup drivers share thoughts on Charlotte road course

The two-day test could give Hemric a step up on his Xfinity competition as the series also will run on the road course next year.

“The first two or three runs was about getting me acclimated (to the car) but since then I think we’ve done a good job of communicating with Goodyear and trying to figure what we need to be able to make sure fans will be able to see racing and side-by-side racing and a lot of action, which I think you’re going to see.”

Added Hemric: “These Cup cars get up to speed so quick compared to the Xfinity car, with such low downforce and high horsepower. It’s been fun to figure out how to get that laid down here around the roval.”

Luckily, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray were all experiencing the road course for the first time.

“Obviously, being my first time in (a Cup car), you’re trying to be aware of what you’re doing yourself,” Hemric said. “But to be able to lean on those guys, have the same thoughts as them, really collaborate with NASCAR and the race track to figure out where we should place those chicanes and all that stuff. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress working as a group.”

MORE: Daniel Hemric returning to RCR in 2018

 

Spencer Boyd will compete in Xfinity full-time in 2018 for SS Green Light Racing

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SS Green Light Racing announced Thursday Spencer Boyd will compete full-time for it next season in the Xfinity Series.

Boyd will drive the No. 76 Chevrolet sponsored by Grunt Style, a veteran-owned lifestyle brand.

Boyd, 22, has made four starts for the team this year in the No. 07 Chevrolet, which has primarily been driven by Ray Black Jr.

“This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Boyd said in a press release.  “I’ve been racing something since I was 5 years old with the dream of making racing my career. Grunt Style has made my dreams come true.”

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Boyd has 12 starts between the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. In six Xfinity starts, including the four this year, his best result is 27th at New Hampshire.

Jason Miller will serve as the crew chief on the car that is owned by Bobby Dotter. Dotter has fielded cars in 116 races in the Xfinity Series since 1995 and 305 Truck Series entries since 2004.

“(Spencer) is one of the hardest working drivers I’ve seen,” Dotter said in the press release. “He is at the shop everyday helping with the cars and making the guys laugh.  Our organization is better because the team believes it when he says this is a team sport.  We are looking forward to a great 2018 season.”