Xfinity Series Spotlight: Elliott Sadler on his many career firsts and his favorite ‘Fat Cat’

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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.

Elliott Sadler celebrates after his 2016 win at Talladega Superspeedway. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“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.

Elliott Sadler celebrates atop “Fat Cat” at Darlington. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

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.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

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Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? 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 said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.