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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.”

Daytona road course entry lists

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NASCAR’s national series will make their debuts on the Daytona road course this weekend. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck events will be held without any practice or qualifying.

NASCAR is prohibiting drivers from competing in more than one series this weekend on the Daytona road course in an effort to get extra track time. NASCAR states that is to make the event fair for everyone.

Sunday’s Cup race will be broadcast on NBC.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the races at the Daytona road course 

Cup – Go Bowling 235 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine drivers are entered for the race at the Daytona road course.

JJ Yeley is in the No. 27 for Rick Ware Racing.

Joey Gase is in the No. 51 for Petty Ware Racing.

Gray Gaulding is in the No. 53 for Rick Ware Racing.

Brendan Gaughan is in the No. 62 for Beard Motorsports.

Timmy Hill is in the No. 66 for Motorsports Business Management.

Reed Sorenson is in the No. 77 for Spire Motorsports.

Click here for Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – UNOH 188 (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Andy Lally is back in the No. 02 Our Motorsports car after finishing fifth last week at Road America.

AJ Allmendinger, who finished second last week at Road America, is in the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing.

IMSA driver Earl Bamber will make his Xfinity debut this weekend in the No. 21 for Richard Childress Racing.

Brandon Gdovic will make his second start of the season, driving the No. 26 for Sam Hunt Racing.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

 

Truck – Sunoco 159 (Noon ET Sunday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered in the race that will be held before the Cup event on Sunday on the Daytona road course.

Alex Tagliani will drive the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Click here for Truck entry list

Silly Season Scorecard: Christopher Bell moves back to JGR

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No surprise that Christopher Bell moves over to the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing next season with Leavine Family Racing being sold and Erik Jones not remaining with JGR beyond this season. Joe Gibbs Racing made the announcement Monday.

While JGR lets the 24-year-old Jones, who has 133 Cup starts go, it brings in the 25-year-old Bell who has made 22 career Cup starts. Jones said before Sunday’s race he was “blindsided a little bit” by JGR’s move.

It’s part of the building momentum of Silly Season. In the last week, Team Penske signed Brad Keselowski to a reported one-year extension and Bubba Wallace said he has an offer for next year not only from Richard Petty Motorsports but also Chip Ganassi Racing.

Here’s how the Cup Silly Season scorecard looks as of Aug. 10.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said in a press conference Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through at least 2021.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 10: Aric Almirola is in a contract year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon is in a contract year at Germain Racing.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto is in a contract year at Wood Brothers Racing. He said after the Aug. 9 Michigan race: “I haven’t really talked about that stuff for next year yet, but we’ve just been so focused and head down on digging and trying to make the playoffs and run well. We haven’t even really talked about it, so, hopefully, I stay here for a very long time to come and that’s what they had expressed to me when I came over here.”

No. 32: Corey LaJoie is in a contract year at Go Fas Racing.

No. 42: Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports on Aug. 8 in regards to talks with Chip Ganassi Racing for next year: “We really haven’t had any very meaningful discussions really about any of that to be honest with you.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace said Aug. 9 he has an offer from Richard Petty Motorsports and an offer from Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 car next season.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Leavine Family Racing announced it was selling its assets earlier this week. The buyer has not been announced. Christopher Bell will move to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team for 2021.

Christopher Bell to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021

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Christopher Bell will drive for the No. 20 next season for Joe Gibbs Racing, the team announced Monday, a decision that was expected with Erik Jones’ contract expiring after this season and it not being renewed. 

“I’m so appreciative of the opportunity I have this year with LFR and I want to finish this season strong for Bob (Leavine) and everyone there,” Bell said in a statement from the team. “At the same time, I’m extremely excited to return to Joe Gibbs Racing starting in 2021. It’s an organization I’m very comfortable with and have had a lot of success with.”

Said car owner Joe Gibbs: “We are excited to bring Christopher into our Cup Series program starting in 2021. He obviously had tremendous success in the Xfinity Series with us and we look forward to his return to JGR.”

Bell drove for JGR in in the Xfinity Series in 2018 and 2019, winning 15 races, before moving to the Cup Series and Leavine Family Racing this season. Leavine Family Racing announced last week that it has been sold.

Entering Sunday’s race at the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC), Bell is 19th in points. His best finish this season is fourth at the first Pocono race in late June.

Xfinity playoff grid after Road America

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Brandon Brown extended his hold on the final spot in the Xfinity playoff grid last weekend at Road America after struggles early in the race.

Brown needed to be pushed back to pit road before the field took the green because of a mechanical issue. He fell a lap down as his crew diagnosed the issue, got his lap back, scored four stage points in the second stage and finished 12th, one spot off his best career finish on a road course.

MORE: Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

MORE: Austin Cindric wins at Road America 

Brown’s effort and Jeremy Clements misfortune in being collected in a crash to finish 29th led to Brown extending his lead on Clements for the final spot in the Xfinity playoff grid to 53 points. Myatt Snider is 73 points behind Brown. Eight races remain until the Xfinity playoffs begin Sept. 26 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Here is a look at the playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Those shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Drivers shaded in red are outside a spot in the Xfinity playoff grid.