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.