Friday 5: A final quest at a ‘childhood dream’

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Elliott Sadler is blunt when he considers his NASCAR career ending without a championship.

“(It) would be a huge void in my life,” he said.

The 43-year-old driver, in his 22nd and final full-time NASCAR season, makes his last run at an Xfinity title beginning with tonight’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Four times in the last seven years Sadler finished runner-up for the Xfinity crown, including last season when he lost the title in the final laps to JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.

“Last year really hurt,” Sadler said. “Really, really hurt. We were in position to win that championship. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent over it yet.”

Sadler was upset last year with Ryan Preece, who slowed Sadler by challenging him for position as Sadler tried to hold off Byron with 10 laps left. Byron got by Sadler. Any hopes Sadler had for a title ended when he made contact with Preece’s car and cut a right front tire. 

Sadler’s anger bubbled after the race and he yelled at Preece on pit road as NASCAR officials stood between them.

Sadler, who competed full-time in Cup from 1999-2010, has called it a “childhood dream” to win a NASCAR championship.

“If we’re not able to win a championship, it would definitely be a scar in my mind of not being a NASCAR champion after putting 20 years of effort into it, after being a kid and a fan and dreaming of being a part of this sport,” he said. “Now, that will not define me as a dad or define me as a person. I’ll still be able, hopefully, to do good things in my community, but it will definitely leave a mark.”

Before he gets to that point, he will have to get through his final race at his home track tonight. Richmond Raceway will honor the Emporia, Virginia, native by having Sadler’s children help with the command to start engines.

Even better for him would be going to Victory Lane with his family. Sadler has never won at Richmond in 56 starts in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. Asked to recall his biggest moment at the track, he instantly brings up the 2005 Xfinity race when Carl Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win.

“I’m probably more nervous about going to Richmond, trying to win the race than I am trying to make it to Homestead,” Sadler said.

When the season ends in two months, don’t expect to see Sadler at the track often in the future.

“I don’t see myself involved in any racing at all,” Sadler said of his post-driving career. “I’ve been offered a job to come do TV, but I don’t see traveling away from home to talk about racing.”

Instead he’ll coach youth sports teams.

“My dad was a huge coach growing up,” Sadler said. “My brother is a wonderful coach and I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I love it. We’re at the facility every night hopefully changing kids’ lives. It would be hard for me to do both at 100 percent. It’s not really that I’m retiring from racing, I’m retiring to coaching and to my kids.”

2. What might have been

Jimmie Johnson has witnessed how fine a line it is between winning and finishing in the pack the past two weeks.

At Indianapolis and Las Vegas, Johnson ran with Brad Keselowski during parts of those races only to see Keselowski win both and Johnson finish far behind.

After the end of stage 2 at Indianapolis, Keselowski was 16th and Johnson was 17th. About 30 laps later, Keselowski was third and Johnson fifth. Keselowski went on to win and Johnson finished 16th.

At Las Vegas, Keselowski was sixth and Johnson seventh with just over 100 laps left. Keselowski won. Johnson was headed for a top-five finish before contact late in the race with Kurt Busch’s car cut a tire and forced Johnson to pit. Johnson finished 22nd.

Keselowski has said that he has not had the fastest car in each of the three races he’s won heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team seek to perform the way Keselowski’s team has.

“Drivers make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Pit stops can go wrong. Unfortunate racing luck can happen. To get all of that to rise together, it takes a little bit of time. We have made a nice jump in speed. I still think we have some room to go there, but now we need to execute on all levels and take advantages of those opportunities that (Keselowski) has.”

While the team seeks to find that speed and execute, Johnson has gone winless in a career-long 50 races.

“I’ve been in a deeper hole before, my own personal experiences in motorsports,” Johnson said, referring to early in his career in off-road racing and then in NASCAR when he “risked it all” and moved to North Carolina to pursue a career in stock car racing.

“I didn’t have as big a spotlight on me and wasn’t a seven-time champion, so nobody really remembers those except me. So I know I will get through this. I’ve been through worse.

“We are moving the right direction. I believe we have hit the valley and are climbing back out.”

He’ll need to do so to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Johnson enters Richmond six points behind teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round.

3. Cole Custer’s self-assessment

With no driver announced for the No. 41 Cup car next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, it was easy for some to think that Cole Custer could move up to that ride.

Car owner Gene Haas seemed to quell such talk last weekend at Las Vegas. While saying he believes Custer “is a good talent,” Haas said of the young driver: “He needs to prove that he can win consistently in Xfinity before I think we’ll consider him for a Cup ride.”

Custer has one Xfinity victory in 64 career series starts. He’s placed second or third in five races this season.

So where does Custer believe he needs to improve?

“I think there are little things that I can do better,” he said. “Having the Cup experience this year has helped me with what happens in that series.

“I think for the most part I have speed every single weekend (in Xfinity). It’s just a matter getting the restarts right and working traffic better and controlling the race when you have the fastest car.”

Custer, who is in the Xfinity playoffs, also will run in Saturday’s Cup race. He’ll drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing. It will be Custer’s third career Cup start.

4. Going for 4 in a row

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win four consecutive Cup races in the last 20 years. That’s the feat Brad Keselowski will seek to equal Saturday night at Richmond.

Since NSACAR’s modern era (1972), eight drivers have won four consecutive races: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

5. NASCAR’s 5th President

Steve Phelps will become the fifth president in NASCAR’s history on Oct. 1.

Bill France Sr. held the position from 1948-72. Bill France Jr. took over from his father until 2000. Mike Helton was in that role from 2000-2015 before he was promoted to Vice Chairman of NASCAR.

The president’s position was not filled after Helton’s promotion until Brent Dewar took over that role July 13, 2017. Phelps is replacing Dewar, who will remain with NASCAR through the end of the season and transition to a senior consulting and advisory role in 2019.

Phelps will oversee all competition and business operations for the sanctioning body in his new role.

He has been more visible at races lately and presented Kyle Busch the regular-season champion’s trophy at two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In January, Phelps, as NASCAR’s chief global sales and marketing officer at the time, was thrust into the controversy about how NASCAR marketed younger drivers after Busch complained about the tactics and Clint Bowyer raised questions about the sanctioning body’s actions.

In July, Phelps defended the sport’s ability to attract sponsors.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” he said at Pocono Raceway during an announcement that Gander Mountain will sponsor the Truck Series beginning in 2019. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works.

“So people tend to focus on, ‘Oh, my gosh, sponsor A left and sponsor B left,’ and for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors.’ And then a plethora of others have renewed or extended for a period of time.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

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Short race: Michigan Cup race lasts just over 2 hours

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Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway lasted just over 2 hours, making it the shortest Cup points race to run a full distance since 2017.

Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Cup race, which lasted 2 hours, 9 minutes, 35 seconds. The short race was reduced to 312 miles since Cup teams ran twice there this weekend. Michigan races are typically 400 miles.

Sunday’s race is the shortest Cup race since the rain-shortened June 2018 event at Michigan that went 2 hours, 15 seconds.

The last Cup race that ran a full distance that was shorter than Sunday’s event was the 2017 Watkins Glen race that lasted 2 hours, 7 minutes, 3 seconds.

MORE: What drivers said after Michigan race

MORE: What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

Nine of the 22 Cup races this season have taken less than 3 hours to run, including six races that were shortened this season after the series resumed in May from the COVID-19 pause.

The issue of shorter races has been a topic in the sport for years. The doubleheader weekend in two weeks at Dover will see both those races shortened from 400 miles to 311 miles each.

“The shorter races, seems like it’s been a good thing,” crew chief Rodney Childers said after Harvick swept the weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “Keeps things exciting.  Everybody is racing harder the whole time, shorter stages. Not much for people riding around or waiting till the end, any of that kind of thing.

“I think the doubleheaders so far have been good. I think putting two of them in the same weekend has been something that probably saves a lot of money for the teams, you’re able to put on a good show two days in a row. We’ll just have to see how that plays outgoing forward.”

Here are the nine races that lasted less than 3 hours this season:

2:09:35 — Michigan II (312 miles)

2:25:01 — Pocono I (325 miles)

2:29:23 — Charlotte II (312 miles)

2:34:55 — Michigan I (322 miles)

2:37:07 — Auto Club (400 miles)

2:42:23 — Darlington II (284 miles)

2:50:54 — Pocono II (350 miles)

2:58:11 — Las Vegas (400 miles)

2:59:49 — Kentucky (400 miles)

What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

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The car is referred to as 081 by Rodney Childers’ crew and in the three Cup Series races it has run this year, it’s unbeatable.

It’s the No. 4 Ford that Kevin Harvick is now 3-for-3 with after his win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team first brought the car to the track for the July 5 Brickyard 400.

In the three races the car has raced, including both parts of this weekend’s doubleheader, Harvick has led 250 of 478 laps and earned four stage wins.

On Sunday, Harvick officially started 20th after a field inversion of the top-20 finishers from Saturday. Harvick won the second stage and eventually led the final 41 laps, holding off Denny Hamlin by .093 seconds to keep 081’s winning streak alive.

Surely, they’ll bring it back at some point in the final 14 races of the season?

“I bet we don’t run it anymore, to be honest with you,” Harvick said after Sunday’s race. “I think there’s so many different styles of racetracks that we’re going to as we go forward here. Obviously, we’re going to a road course (Daytona) next week, then we go to a low downforce track two races in a row at Dover, then a superspeedway car (Daytona), then you go into short tracks, Darlington with high downforce cars. I know you won’t run it at Vegas or Charlotte.

“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll run this car anymore.”

When asked about the future of 081, Childers wouldn’t budge.

“That’s kind of up to me to decide. It’s top secret,” Childers said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Don’t expect the No. 4 team to christen 081 – a number assigned to it in production – with any affectionate nicknames, like the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave to a car a few years ago, “Amelia.”

“We don’t really talk about that kind of stuff,” Childers said. “We’ve had some good cars over the years with the 4 team and some of them have won a lot of races. We call it 081 and we keep it going through the system just like any other car. Just have to figure out our car schedule and figure out where we’re going to run it again and keep moving forward with it.”

What drivers said after Sunday Cup race at Michigan

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Here is what drivers had to say after the Sunday Cup race at Michigan:

Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I think when you look at my team we’ve been together for going on seven years now and you look at the confidence everybody has in each other. The details of the race cars and the thought of everything that goes into everything that we do is untouchable. That’s what it takes are details to make these race cars go fast. Our car wasn’t quite as good as it was yesterday. I think it was obviously still really good, but I had a little bit more trouble going through traffic today than I did yesterday just because of the tight into three that I had today. Like I said earlier, I could still get through one and two really good, but I couldn’t make those great low passes like I could yesterday and stay in the throttle. If I carried too much speed in there I would push up into the center of the corner and just have to pedal the thing on exit.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Just needed to maneuver a little bit better and I think that we could be a little better. Overall, our car handled well. Just needed a little more speed there and a little bit more handling to pass. Obviously, I thought we were definitely the fastest car by running him (Kevin Harvick) down there. Once we finally got to second, I knew we had something for him, I just got stalled there and he was tight, I was tight. We were better, that’s for sure. I thought if I could maybe get to his quarter panel, I could shove him higher and make him tighter, but just couldn’t quite do it.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We don’t do anything easy, that’s for sure. We were awful at the start of the race. I don’t know, we didn’t make a lot of changes from (Saturday). We tried to do different things to try to get better. We definitely were worse. Just have to grind them out, that’s what we do. It’s good to be grinding out top-three finishes, that’s what the Playoffs are all about. We need to get some more points before that starts. We battled back. The car was pretty far off to start the race. We’re all pretty disappointed in that obviously, but really proud of the effort to get the Auto Owners Camry back up front.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 4th: “The long runs went away later in the race and that’s just what we had. We got about all we could get out of the day. I felt like the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was the best car. The 2 (Brad Keselowski) was second-best. The 11 (Denny Hamlin), there at the end showed up and was pretty fast, but the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) and myself were really even. That was about all we had. We come to Michigan not normally looking for top-five days, but this has been a good two days. Hopefully we can keep some momentum rolling here and get ready to go next week and turn right and turn left. Yesterday and today, the car drove great. The best driving car I’ve had here at Michigan.”

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “Overall we learned some things this weekend. Both races we were just a little too far off to start. A top-five finish today was good. We’re starting to build some momentum and when you start clicking off top-five finishes you know wins are just around the corner. Obviously next week is a big unknown for everyone going down to Daytona to run the road course. A lot has gone into that so it should be an interesting race for the fans.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 6th: “Today is how we’re supposed to run. We drove from 32nd to the top 10 and had a great Smithfield Hometown Heroes Ford Mustang. We were able to rally there at the end from 22nd to sixth in 12 laps. It felt like we were going to get to third and just ran out of laps. Really proud of Mike Bugarewicz and everyone on our team. Yesterday was a tough day and a character building day. The team worked their guts out last night and we had a great day with the result of it. We’re back on track with our top five and top-10 capability. Congrats to Kevin Harvick on back-to-back wins here and keeping the heritage trophy in Ford’s backyard.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 7th: “It was tough. The car had our tongue hanging out all day, so it’s good we made improvements from yesterday. We were really struggling yesterday and our team worked super-hard and made some good improvements so we could at least run further up there. We didn’t play a lot of defense all day and had to drive the thing for all it was worth, so just glad we were able to get a top 10 out of it finishing seventh. You can take a car that’s a struggle and something that we’re not satisfied with and struggled with all weekend and make some improvements with, but if we take a car like that and finish seventh with it and move on, that just shows the strength of our team and how we keep getting better. If you can make your bad days a top 10, sometimes that’s all you can hope for.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 8th: “It was a good day. We had to start last after going to a backup car and we were issued a pass-through penalty on lap one for making unapproved adjustments on pit road. Despite the challenges, we stayed on the lead lap in Stage 1, which just shows how fast our Chevy was today. The race played out pretty similar to yesterday with strategy and the call to take fuel-only on our last pit stop. We were digging at the end of the race, moving from outside the top 15 to eighth. I thought we had something for seventh but just ran out of laps. It feels good to work as a team to overcome what we had to, and to finish the race as the first Chevrolet in the field.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 9th: “We struggled to get the Mountain Dew Chevy dialed in today. It was pretty tight, and we just weren’t able to improve the handling. We squeaked by with a top-10 finish. All in all, it was a decent weekend, but we have some work to do.”

MATT McCALL (CREW CHIEF for Kurt Busch) — Finished 10th: “Another top-10 finish to roundout a doubleheader weekend. Our Monster Energy Chevy was a little bit better on the short-run speed today, which helped us on some of those restarts. We’ll continue to work hard still to be better to contend for wins. We need to stay focused in trying to turn these top-10 into top-five finishes.” 

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 11th: “We put up a good fight today. Track position was important, and we fought the balance most of the day. I’m looking forward to the road course and both Dover races.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “Hard fought day for us at Michigan today and this weekend overall really. After this weekend we came out of Michigan with a bit larger of a points gap than we started which is good. Hopefully we can go on to the road course at Daytona and keep building that point buffer. I think we’re really good at road courses so hopefully we can run well there despite it being an unknown. I’m looking forward to it though and the challenge it will bring. I will definitely be doing a lot of iRacing this week to get ready for it.”  

Clint Bowyer – Finished 14th: “We had a pretty good DEKALB Ford today. Leading laps is a lot of fun. We could run wide open out front, but we had to lift behind other cars. We were OK until we got hit and that forced us to make an extra stop and that put us in the back. It was good to get some stage points today. We need to do that again next weekend in Daytona.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 18th: My GEICO-Germain Racing guys did a good job this weekend. We made adjustments from yesterday to today and it definitely improved the handling. At the end there, it took our Camaro ZL1 1LE about three laps to come in and then it started rolling. We ran our fastest lap of the race in the final 10 laps, so I think if we had a few more, we would have finished even better. I’m happy to leave with a top-20 finish though. I’m looking forward to the Daytona Road Course next week.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 21st: “Well, today wasn’t as good as yesterday, obviously. Our Camaro just kind of lacked a little bit in overall speed and overall grip. I couldn’t really find it throughout the race, so the restarts didn’t go our way there, towards the end. I kept getting trapped and everything. I guess we used all of our eggs on the first day. All-in-all, it was a solid day coming out of Michigan. A good points day, a good points swing for us. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to climb up the ladder, but we’re heading in the right direction from the last couple of races. So, progress is showing. On to the Daytona road course.”

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 23rd: “We struggled today. We were tight at the start and dragged a lot, particularly when I would get within a few car lengths of another car. We made adjustments throughout the day, and the last one definitely helped us get more speed at the end, but we came home P23. My crew did a great job of sticking with it to the end and never giving up.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 24th: “We fought hard today at Michigan International Speedway, but our No. 8 Chevrolet Accessories Camaro ZL1 1LE was a challenge during the race. We fired off extremely tight, which made it hard to move around and run the bottom like I needed to be able to do. My crew chief, Randall Burnett, made some good adjustments during the race that helped loosen me up, but we just needed a little bit more today. We’ll definitely look back at this weekend as a team to see what we can learn from it and regroup for next weekend.”

Cole Custer – Finished 25th: “We got the car handling better throughout the race, but at the end all of the sudden it wouldn’t turn. That dropped us back quite a few spots, but I think we learned a lot today. We had to overcome some adversity with starting in the back and then getting the pit road penalty, but we’re growing as a team and we’ll move forward to the Daytona road course next week.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 26th: “It was a good job by Dave (Winston, crew chief) making changes, a good job by the pit crew, a good job by everyone. We got the most out of what we had. We thought our Toyota was going to be better at the start of the race – definitely didn’t expect it to be as loose as it was. But we were able to make it better. I just wish I could have some more straightline speed to race some of those guys ahead of us, but I know we’ll get there. We’ll just keep on digging.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 28th: “It was just an overall difficult weekend for our No. 34 team at Michigan. We didn’t unload how we had hoped in race one and then got collected in a late-race incident that forced us to a backup car for today. My guys fought hard on pit road all weekend to try and get our race cars better, and I felt like we were continuously making improvements, but we just ran out of time at the end of the race.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 36th: “That was not what we wanted or needed today. It was just unfortunate events. Greg (Ives) and the guys made great adjustments from yesterday and got the car pretty good. We battled some snug conditions, but the team made great adjustments on pit road. Obviously not the way we wanted to end the double header weekend. We will learn from this and move on to next week.”

Ryan Blaney —Finished 38th:  “It’s just unfortunate for the whole Penske organization. We had two fast cars battling for the lead and it just stinks that happened. He had a run, like he said, and he didn’t think he had as big of a run as he had and just got loose and, unfortunately, got us both. It’s a shame to end our day like that with the Knauf/Menards Ford Mustang. We were so fast.  We had to battle back from having to pit again and got to 10th for the second stage and then got the lead. I was like, ‘All right, we can finally go back at it,’ and just got together there. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not gonna carry over. Things happen. Mistakes happen. It’s just a shame both of us got taken out.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI — Finished 39th:  “I just lost it. It’s my fault. I feel really bad for my teammate, Ryan Blaney.  He didn’t deserve that. I just came off of turn four and the 4 car was behind me and he gave me a push and I swear I went into the corner like 20 miles an hour faster than I had been all day and got past the 11 and I went to get underneath the 12 and I just slipped. I lost the back a little bit and when I went to collect it he was there and I wiped him out and myself out, so I feel terrible for everyone at Team Penske and especially Ryan Blaney. Gosh, he didn’t deserve that. I should have whoa’d way up. I had been running wide-open on the bottom all day and thought I could do it again, but with that big push I overestimated the grip and ruined our day.”

Michigan Sunday Cup results, point standings

Sunday Cup results
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Kevin Harvick completed the weekend sweep with his victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, his sixth win of the season.

Denny Hamlin placed second in the Sunday Cup results. Martin Truex Jr. placed third and was followed by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

Click here for race results

Point Standings

With four races left in the regular season, the last three drivers currently inside the top 16 in points are William Byron (+26 points above cutline) and Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson, who are tied with 511 points.

The first driver outside the top 16 who has not won a race is Tyler Reddick. He’s 10 points behind Johnson and Jones.

Click here for the points standings.