This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of the race where Elliott Sadler‘s NASCAR career caught its second or maybe even its third wind, 21 years after it started.
On April 30, his 41st birthday, Sadler waited five minutes at the Talladega Superspeedway start-finish line to learn whether he or Brennan Poole had won the race. A wreck on the front stretch as the checkered flag waved resulted in a frozen field and confusion.
“One-hundred percent the longest I’ve ever had to wait, and man, it felt a lot longer than it was,” Sadler told NBC Sports this week. “I’m telling you, it felt like a year.”
That metaphorical year was on top of the two real years that had passed since Sadler’s last Xfinity Series win.
Eventually, Sadler got the good news. His win sent him to the top of the points standings. Heading back to Talladega this weekend, the JR Motorsports driver has led the points standings for 23 of the 32 races since his win.
“Somebody showed me a stat two weeks ago that (60) percent of the races I have ran for JR Motorsports we have been leading the points,” Sadler said. “That’s a crazy stat.”
In eight full-time seasons, Sadler has been a points runner-up in the Xfinity points three times, including last season.
“I’m definitely looking for redemption this year,” Sadler said. “Believe me, I don’t need any extra incentive to want to win a championship.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed
NBC Sports: You celebrated your birthday on Sunday. What did you do to celebrate?
Sadler: Me and my wife and a bunch of friends went out to dinner that night and went to lunch with our kids during the day and cooked breakfast here at home. But just spent a lot of time around here at the house. We had the race Saturday at Richmond so we were home for the weekend. So it was nice to do some stuff with my friends.
NBC Sports: What’s the coolest birthday gift you’ve ever gotten?
Sadler: (Laughs) Man, I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of them in my lifetime. I would say the coolest birthday gift I’ve had was a car when I turned 16 years old. I’m not going to lie, in the state of Virginia when you turn 16 on your birthday, you get your driver’s license. My mom and dad, as long as I stayed on the honor roll, they bought me a car for my 16th birthday. I would say to this day that’s by far the coolest birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.
NBC Sports: That was going to be one of my other questions. What was your first car?
Sadler: It was a Mustang GT. I don’t know what the hell my parents were thinking, giving me something that fast. I won’t make that mistake with my kids. … It was a 1992 (model), black with gray stripes on it. It was beautiful with the new five-star wheels. That’s when they went from the honeycomb wheels to five-star. That thing would fly and it had a great radio system in it.
NBC Sports: You made your first Xfinity start at South Boston Speedway in 1995. What is your most vivid memory from that weekend?
Sadler: I have a couple different memories. It’s funny how your first weekend stands out. I can’t tell you what happened a year ago at a race. But your first race, I remember being fast in practice, then I qualified 15th, so I didn’t qualify good. I remember running third on the last lap, passing Elton Sawyer for second and we spun out. I spun completely out, did a 360 and finished (eighth). I finished (eighth) in my first race, but when I took the white flag I was passing a guy for second. That would have been neat if I had been able to pull that off in my first ever start and finish second. It was at my home track in front of my home town fans. Man, what a race, we had so much fun.
NBC Sports: Going forward a few years, your first Cup start is the 1998 Coca-Cola 600. What was that experience like for you?
Sadler: Well, I wanted to pick a really short race to start, you know. (laughs) … The biggest thing I remember about the Coca-Cola 600, I got very hungry during the race. I’m like, ‘this is a long race. I am hungry.’ The (Xfinity) races used to start at 12 o’clock every Saturday so I’d eat a little bit of breakfast, then I wouldn’t eat anymore until after the races were over with. Where the Coca-Cola 600, I got up and ate breakfast, and I was nervous and everything else and hanging out at the track and I didn’t eat anything. Halfway through the race I’m like, ‘man, I am starving.’ I remembered (thinking) ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do a better job of eating before these Cup races, they’re way longer.’
NBC Sports: I find it odd when I look at first Cup starts and it’s always like the Coke 600 or at Daytona or Talladega.
Sadler: Right, well there’s a reason for that. You got to look past that. Daytona and Talladega are really easy tracks for rookies to start at. Because it’s not really driving. It’s really if the car is fast at Daytona or Talladega, you’re going to make the race. It’s not really what you got to do. Charlotte, the reason people do it, teams don’t have to spend money on flying people somewhere, they don’t have to spend money on hotel rooms, cause you’re there at the race track and you’re there at Charlotte. So it’s a cheaper place to really start and kind of make a go at it, so that’s why I think you see those tracks stand out.
NBC Sports: You’ve won three Cup races, which one are you most proud of?
Sadler: I’m definitely most proud of Bristol (March 2001). Because that’s your first ever win and I won for the Wood Brothers at a place they had never won at before and it was close to home for them. So 100 percent that was the one I was most proud of, because it was the first one. It put you into a different group, man. It’s different when you win a Cup race compared to any other race. It put you into a whole new category and league. I was very proud to be able to make that happen.
NBC Sports: How did you celebrate that night?
Sadler: It’s not a long ride from Bristol, Tennessee, to Stewart, Virginia. Went back to Stewart that night and celebrated with everybody in the shop. Somebody had toilet papered Eddie and Len’s house there in Stewart and they had toilet papered the shop. It was like the whole town showed up for a Bar-B-Que that Sunday night. That was really neat for me to be a part of it at such a young age.
NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?
I think the very first one I’ve got pictures of and I can remember is the 1979 Daytona 500. We were there in the stands and our seats were off of Turn 4 and see back then, NASCAR when they threw the checkered flag they open the gates and let all the fans come in. We were walking around on the track and tacking pictures of the track and all of that stuff. That was a neat time.
NBC Sports: Do you remember the piece of merchandise that you saw your name or face on?
Sadler: Yes, when I drove Late Models in 1993 we went to the local, little photo shop here in town in Emporia and they made us a little post card and put my name and face on it. Man, it was something to be seen. It was neat to hand those out to people at the track and people could come get them, that was pretty cool to see.
NBC Sports: Have you ever named a race car?
Sadler: We name pretty much all of our race cars and I always have since I ran Late Models. … They’re all named for different reasons and a lot of them have back stories. So a name I tell you probably isn’t going to mean anything to you, but my favorite car that we have now at JR Motorsports that I run all the time now is called ‘Fat Cat.’ It has a long story about why it’s called ‘Fat Cat.’ … ‘Fat Cat’ is a friend of mine that’s pretty funny that helps us do some stuff with the race team. One of my engineers thought we should name one of the cars after him. So my engineer named the race car that and we kind of went with that and I won at Darlington for the first time out of the box last year, so that became one of my favorite cars.
NBC Sports: It’s been a few years since you were in a Cup race at Bristol. If you were to get the chance again, what would you choose for your intro song?
Sadler: (laughs) Oh man, that’s a really good question. I would have to say some big hair band music style. Like some Journey or Bon Jovi. Something in that limelight I think would be something I would choose. I like the rift of “Separate Ways” by Journey when it starts or “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner that’s got a bad beat to it. That’s what I would go with. Something old school from when I was coming along in school. That’s what I think I would like to have.
NBC Sports: Final question. On a day where you don’t have to be at the race track or the shop and your family is off doing something else. You’re by yourself, you have no obligations. What does Elliott Sadler do with his day?
Sadler: We’re going to go play some golf. Going to play some golf this time of year. During the winter time, it’s easy, I hunt. I hunt every single day. During the summer time this time of year I’m going to try and find some buddies and let’s go play a round of 18 somewhere on a golf course.
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