Xfinity Series Spotlight: Elliott Sadler

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Elliott Sadler will never forget the first time he got behind the wheel.

An eager 7-year-old with a go-kart, there ended up being not enough kids in Sadler’s age group to race. However, he was placed with the higher age group, which included his older brother, Hermie. With a six-year age gap, the advice to young Elliott was simple: Start in the back, ride around and gain some experience.

“Of course at seven years old you don’t listen to anybody,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “All you know is wide open.”

So in his first race, Sadler not only competed with older drivers but attempted to drive through the field. As he did, the worst happened. Sadler not only wrecked, but flipped three times.

“Destroyed the motor,” he recalled. “Just not a good way to start your racing career. I didn’t get hurt. I was upset, I was crying, but more because I had messed up the motor than anything else and could not wait to get back in the go-kart the next week.”

Sadler did get to race again and now at 41 years old, he’s a staple in NASCAR. Across all three national series, Sadler has made 777 starts with 16 wins. He enters the first race of the inaugural Xfinity Series Chase at Kentucky Speedway as the No. 2 seed.

Over the course of his 20-year career, Sadler has experienced all the highs and lows racing can throw at a driver. Including a few races (Michigan 2000; Talladega 2003; Talladega 2004) that reminded him of his very first.

“That’s how my racing career started – flipping,” Sadler said. “I kind of made that a habit.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Both your Dad (Herman) and your uncle (Bud) raced, so you almost had no choice but to follow suit right?

Sadler: No, I didn’t have any choice; it was pretty cool growing up in a racing family. My mom had three brothers, and they all raced growing up and then my dad also raced, so I had it on both sides of the family. We were always at the racetrack on Friday and Saturday nights; we were always watching my dad race or my uncles race and then we’d all kind of meet on Sunday at my grandma’s house and talk about how the weekend went. It’s funny how we progressed. I’d be racing in places, my uncles would be racing somewhere, and I had four other cousins that also raced, so we were all racing in different spots and then we’d all meet up on Sunday to watch the Cup race and then talk about how our weekends went. We’re racing a family; that’s what we’ve always done. It’s definitely in my blood, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do this for a majority of my life.

NBC Sports: You played many different sports while in high school, so what was the turning point when you had to decide stick and ball or racing?

Sadler: I played five different sports in high school (baseball, basketball, football, soccer and golf) and was heavily recruited in basketball and baseball to go to college and do those things. I was probably better in baseball than anything, but I was also racing on the weekends, so I would be playing high school sports during the week and racing every Friday and Saturday night. So no homecoming dances, no proms, no anything, I stayed pretty busy. I went to college to play basketball at James Madison University. Well, I got hurt and had to have knee surgery and never really recovered from it. Just lost a step, never was that good again as I had been, so kind of lost interest in college because I was not able to be on the basketball team and pursue my dream of being a college basketball player.

I left college after my sophomore season and made a deal with dad, which he was not very happy with, to please let me have a year of racing and doing it the best I can to see if I can make it. If I don’t make it I’ll come back, go back to college, and join the family business. That was kind of the turning point of my career. I was able to focus 100 percent on racing and do very well at it and was at the right place at the right time; somebody saw us and gave us a chance, and the rest is history.

NBC Sports: What was your relationship with Hermie like growing up?

Sadler: I think what helped Hermie and I the best was our age difference. We are six years apart, so we never really had to compete against each other. We were always competing in the same sports, go-kart racing and then Late Model racing, but we were never in the same class, we were always in different classes because of our age difference. So what that made us is each other’s biggest supporter. We were never really competing against each other until later in life when we had to race against each other in the Xfinity Series, but by then we had raced so long together as brothers and as teammates, in different classes, it never really got to be an issue. I think that was the best thing that ever happened to us.

NBC Sports: Having competed in NASCAR for so long how would you sum up your career to this point?

Sadler: Honestly, I think it’s been a great career, and I’m biased … It could be a history of what could have been. I was very close to winning the Daytona 500 one year; I’ve thrown away some races; NASCAR taking the race away from us at Indy, that cost me the championship in 2012. So it could be a career of ‘what ifs.’ But from a small-town boy in southern Virginia to be able to do something he loves and be in the sport for as long as I’ve been able to do it and meet the people I’ve been able to meet and make the friends I’ve been able to make, definitely very fortunate.

The neat part about that is, it doesn’t feel like 20 years to me. A big deal was made about us winning at Darlington after 20 years of trying and I’m like, ‘Man, I feel like I just got here’ because I look at it differently. I look at each year as its own entity. I don’t know how many years I’ll be able to do this; I still eat, sleep, drink it a lot. It still tears my nerves up when we do bad; I still get emotional when we good, so I still have a lot of fire left in the tank and as long as I can be competitive week in and week out, I want to be racing.

NBC Sports: There were a lot of ups and downs in your Cup career, did you ever think about walking away when things were really bad?

Sadler: I never thought I wanted to leave and go do something different, but when I got in that circus in the 19 car (at Gillette Evernham Motorsports/Richard Petty Motorsports) and didn’t have any cars and running used parts and they were barricading the doors and we didn’t know if we was going to race again, when I got in the middle of that mess was by far the low point in my career. I never wanted to say I need to walk away, I was like, ‘It can’t end like this. I’m having too much fun, I feel like I’ve done some good things as a race car driver, my career cannot end like this, I don’t want it to end like this.’

I was so very fortunate to have a small conversation with Kevin Harvick at a driver’s introductions one day that led to the rebirth of my career when Kevin let me drive his truck at Pocono. We sat on the pole and won that race. If not for Kevin and DeLana Harvick giving me that opportunity when things were going so bad in my Cup career, I would not be here today. So I never looked at it as I need to go away, I just looked at it as, man, it can’t end like this. We got to keep digging; we gotta put ourselves in better situations, and we were able to do that.

NBC Sports: The softball league that you play in is very serious, why did you decide to play a sport away from the track? 

Sadler: I used to play until about two years ago about 100 games a year of men’s travel softball. It’s real competitive, it’s hard, it’s nitty gritty. I have cut back on that some now because of the kids; I’m more involved in my kid’s life, I run camps for baseball and T-Ball; I’m a commissioner of a rec league; I coach my kid’s teams. I’m very involved in their life, so I’ve had to cut back a lot of my softball the last couple years. That being said, I still get that competitive juices from that style of sports, it’s not just to go out there and have fun, it’s ‘Doggone it, we’re here to win.’ We’re out here to win and make the most of it. I think that helps me. I think it clears my mind of racing so much week to week that I don’t bring last week’s race with me, good or bad. I’ve done so much during the week between races that I have forgotten about what happened last week and it’s all about focusing on what we need to do this week.

NBC Sports: You’ve mentioned working out more over the last few years, have you been paying more attention to taking care of your body?

Sadler: One hundred percent. I’m an outdoorsy guy, so I’m always doing stuff outdoors like playing all these sports and stuff like that. But starting in 2012 I hired a trainer, really started watching more of what I ate, really worked out more. I work out four days a week now, and it’s to stay a part of the sport, it’s to stay competitive, it’s to keep my hand-eye coordination going. It’s to be in a spot where you’re not getting tired during a race, and you can stay fresh and energized through a whole 200 or 300-mile race. It has made all the difference in the world me working hard the last five or six years. I feel better, I sleep better, I’m more focused, probably in a better mood. It’s given me confidence.

It’s put me in a frame of mind where I’m not going to get beat on the athletic side of it or the fitness side. I might get beat because I didn’t make the right decision on a pit call or I didn’t give my crew chief the right communication or we just missed it that weekend. But as far my checklist as a driver on things I can do, I’m not going to get beat on that side of it because I feel like I’m prepared now as good as I ever was mentally and physically to get into a racecar each week.

NBC Sports: How has fatherhood changed you?

Sadler: Well, it’s given me purpose. It’s pretty emotional, to be honest with you. When my son was born, he’s six years old now, in February 2010, we didn’t know if he was going to make it. He had a lot of pre-birth issues; he had to have surgery a couple times, and he was fighting for his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for a couple months. I think seeing my son fight for his life surely means I can fight for my racing and my career and the things I want to do as a driver. So I think being a father has given me purpose, more determination, more of an attitude on the things I can and cannot do in a racecar and I don’t want to be a failure. I don’t want to be a failure for my kids. I want to set a good example and that you can do things the right way and it starts with being competitive each week. They have definitely given me a lot of purpose to race for week in and week out.

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Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”