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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.”

Long: Past, present come together for thrilling Daytona 500 finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The kids paid homage to history and became part of it after Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Against a purplish sky, as day transitioned to night at Daytona International Speedway, the scoring towers blazed with the No. 3 and No. 43 in the top two spots. Not since April 1987 at Bristol have those iconic numbers stood together atop the results of a NASCAR Cup race.

But instead of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in those cars, it was Austin Dillon piloting the No. 3 to the victory and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. driving the No. 43 to a runner-up finish.

And in a nod to the sport’s rough-and-tumble days, the car ahead of the No. 3 on the final lap spun out of the lead after contact. A trail of sparks and smoke produced the lasting image of Aric Almirola’s car instead of it covered in confetti in Victory Lane.

Almirola, though, held no grudge against Dillon.

After all, that’s just racin’.

That’s what the public wants. The sport has faced a tug-of-war with fans ton how to make the racing more exciting. Older fans long for past days, recalling the rivalries but overlooking that the competition wasn’t always so balanced. New fans need more to keep engaged.

Stages were added last year to enhance the racing. It created chaos Sunday. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon were eliminated through no fault of their own in a crash just before the first stage ended.

That was one of four multi-car crashes. Each time wayward cars avoided the path Dillon and Wallace took.

Then again, both Dillon and Wallace have taken their own paths through the years.

Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress, drove the No. 3 when he raced as a child. To NASCAR fans that number represented Earnhardt and became sacred after his death on the last lap of this race in 2001.

Childress admits he was “ready to get out of the sport” after the death of his best friend. What was left? His friend was gone.

“The relationship that him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,’’ Dillon said. “I mean, it’s one of those friendships, a best friend that you trust and you love. I could tell how much as I grew older their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.’’

Childress recalled a conversation he and Earnhardt had on a mountain in New Mexico during a hunting trip. The two men reflected upon their mortality. They agreed to go on if something happened to the other.

With that, Childress kept racing through the sadness and emptiness.

Then something came along to lift Childress’ spirits. His grandsons Austin and Ty. Both played sports but followed their father into racing. Childress backed them in the early days and groomed them, hoping they could carry Richard Childress Racing further.

As Austin Dillon progressed, he and Childress had a conversation about the No. 3. Dillon still used it but the closer he moved to NASCAR’s national series, the touchier the subject was for some.

“That was Dale’s number,’’ Childress reminded Austin.

“No it isn’t,’’ Austin told pop-pop. “It’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’’

Childress was convinced that Dillon should continue to drive it in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The number had not run a Cup race since the Feb. 18, 2001, at Daytona. Until Austin did in 2014.

For Wallace, who has raced since a child, it is race that sets him apart.

He became the first African-American to compete in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s achievement earned a tweet from Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wishing him well.

“I got weak at the knees,’’ Wallace said.

Before he climbed into his car, Wallace was given the phone. Former Major League Baseball home run record holder Hank Aaron wanted to wish him good luck.

“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it. Just exciting,’’ Wallace said.

Still, both drivers — essentially teammates with Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports in an alliance — were not the main story entering the 60th running of this race.

Dillon didn’t have time to ponder such things before Sunday’s race.

He was trying to console his wife about 90 minutes before the race. Dillon couldn’t understand why his wife cried as they prayed with family members in their motorhome.

‘’Are you okay?’’ Dillon asked Whitney. “What’s wrong?’’

Dillon’s words were not soothing.

“She kind of got mad at me for like, why are you crying,’’ he said. “She stormed off. So I walked back to the bathroom, like, ‘Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?’’

“I get emotional when it comes to you,’’ Whitney told him.

“That’s good, but it’s okay, I’m going to be okay, it’s all good,’’ Dillon reassured. “We had it out there for a second, and I was like, ‘Look, before I get in this race car, my mind has got to be right, so tell me you love me.’ And she’s like, ‘I love you. That’s why I’m crying.’ ’’

Then she told him something else.

“This one is not going to be easy,’’ she said of the race.

“You’re not going to lead every lap and be up front much, but you’re going to do it when it’s clutch, you’re going to win when it matters, on the last lap,’’ she said.

It wasn’t just Whitney’s words with him. He had a lucky penny in his car — just as Earnhardt had in the No. 3 car when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Dillon got the penny earlier this week while doing an autograph session outside the garage. A child in a white Ford hat came through the line. Dillon, a Chevrolet driver, took off his hat, signed it and gave it to the child.

“I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’’ Dillon told the child he estimated to be 8 years old.

The next day, Dillon saw the child wearing his hat outside the garage fence. Dillon approached him. The child gave Dillon a penny that he put in his car.

Between Whitney’s words and the penny, Dillon only led only the final lap. Actually, he led less than half a lap, taking the lead after the contact with Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,’’ Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know, I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in Victory Lane.’’

Back where Dillon was in 1998 as a 7-year-old, celebrating Earnhardt’s win that day and collecting all the sponsor hats the team wore.

Sunday, they were in Victory Lane for him. Childress and the team laughed, sprayed champagne and celebrated a night they hadn’t enjoyed after the Daytona 500 since last winning it in 2007.

As the team members posed for pictures with their sponsor hats, they didn’t raise their index finger to signal they were No. 1 as they cheered.

They didn’t raise two fingers for the number of Cup wins Dillon now has.

They raised three fingers.

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Keeping pace with ‘The King’? Hard to do after second at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For perhaps the first time in NASCAR history, “The King” wasn’t signing autographs.

“No, ain’t got time now buddy,” Richard Petty, smiling broadly but striding briskly below his famous black cowboy hat, said to a fan holding up a sharpie and program as he entered the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway, urgently searching for his famous No. 43 Chevrolet.

The 80-year-old’s purposeful pace finally slowed as he reached crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who informed Petty why his car was nowhere to be found – because driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace was involved in a postrace crash with Denny Hamlin.

“Did we beat him?” Petty asked.

“Yeah, we beat him,” Blickensderfer said.

Petty smiled while dropping his shades off his nose, turned on his heels and made a beeline back down the pit lane and into the garage, where he waved to throngs of fans cheering from the Fan Deck above while turning down three more autograph-seekers.

He paused briefly to escape the path of a wrecker towing the battered No. 43 back to the hauler and then tore off again for the care center.

Most you’ve walked in a while, King? “You got that! Damn right.”

He disappeared inside the care center and then emerged with Wallace, whom he gave a bear hug. He chatted briefly with family members and kept smiling while staring up at the scoring pylon before wandering over to some waiting reporters with a playfully gruff, “What do you want?”

Not a bad start to the season, huh?

“Almost,” Petty said. “(Wallace) was laying in there, and they was checking his blood pressure, and I walked in and said, ‘What was the last thing I told you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t tear up my car.’ He just went out. I think his blood pressure went to 330!

“I wasn’t going to blame him. That’s for dang sure.”

Wallace, who placed a career-best second as the highest-finishing African-American in the 60-year history of the Daytona 500, later recounted his version of events.

“My heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center,” Wallace said. “(Petty) walks in livid, and he first thing he said, what’s the first thing I told you, with a very stern attitude and look, and I’m like, ‘Ummmm,’ and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’  So we shared a good laugh, and he come in and gave me a big hug after that.

“To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment.”

The smile never left Petty’s face, which lit up when asked to describe Wallace’s performance.

“They’d make pit stops because they was adjusting the car, and he’d run himself back up to sixth, seventh,” Petty said. “He probably passed more cars than anybody. But he was in the race all day long. That was good. It was a good day for us.”

Particularly for a team that is hunting for sponsorship. Wallace scored Richard Petty Motorsports’ best finish since Aric Almirola’s July 2014 victory at Daytona.

“This shouldn’t hurt anything,” Petty said. “If we could have won the race, it would have been better, but second is the best thing besides winning. He was in the race all day long. That made us feel good.”

The seven-time champion seems to be in great spirits ever since hiring the 24-year-old Wallace, who said he served as Petty’s “Uber driver” for a Saturday night dinner.

“We were just making small talk, no cameras there,” Wallace said. “He’s been here since Day 1 running on the beaches, and ever since this was built, and just hearing all that just was like, ‘Wow.’ First of all, I wasn’t even born yet, wasn’t even a thought yet.  My parents were just born.  Just kind of showing his age there, and just hearing what he had to talk about.”

After Wallace excelled in a four-race audition substituting for an injured Almirola last season, RPM hired him last November. Petty has said Wallace puts the team in step with the new generation of fresh faces in Cup this season.

Does he also provide the car owner with extra energy?

“I’m trying to give him energy,” Petty said. “I’ve got plenty!”

Someone told him he had just proved that on his dash through the pits.

“Nobody could keep up,” he said with a wink.

Late Daytona wreck keeps Martin Truex Jr. from picking up where he left off last season

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Last season, Martin Truex Jr. won a series-high eight races en route to capturing his first career NASCAR Cup championship.

Truex hoped to pick up where he left off at the end of last season with his first career win in the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his day, as Truex finished 18th in the season opener.

But that’s not to say he wasn’t close. On the contrary. Truex was running second with seven laps left, but was shuffled back after being involved in a wreck with two laps left in originally scheduled 200-lap distance.

And there went his winning hopes.

MORE: Bubba Wallace gets pre-race good luck call from baseball legend Hank Aaron

While his team managed to get him back on-track, the damage was done and he finished two laps down to the leaders.

“Not the day we were looking for,” Truex said. “It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t. It’s just the way it goes.

“Superspeedway racing – a lot of it is out of your control. That last caution in hindsight, we probably should have gotten tires. Tried to come up from the back because we were sitting ducks upfront.”

That he was running second so late in the race is a testament to the efficiency of Truex and his team. Earlier in the race, the No. 78 Toyota had fallen two laps back due to a punctured oil cooler, front end damage and a flat right rear tire after being caught up in a wreck.

But Truex managed to work his way back onto the lead lap and was in position to make a great comeback – only to fall short at the end.

“We didn’t have enough speed to keep up with some of those guys up front. I’d get back there but didn’t have the speed to get by them. It was just one of those deals where we needed it to stay green to be in a good spot. It just didn’t work out in the end.”

But there were some bright spots: he earned 11 championship points for finishing fifth and sixth in the first two stages.

“It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t,” Truex said. “It’s just the way it goes.”

Social Roundup: NASCAR community congratulates Austin Dillon on Daytona 500 win

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Austin Dillon led only one lap to win Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’s the ninth different driver to win the race in the last nine years.

Not long after the 27-year-old driver took the checkered flag, NASCAR’s corner of Twitter began congratulating him.

First up is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the grand marshal for the race. He left the track when Alex Bowman was collected in a Lap 198 crash, but he still sent Dillon his warm wishes.