Elliott Sadler begins final chapter with crew chief who revived career

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Elliott Sadler got his wish.

The 43-year-old JR Motorsports driver will end his NASCAR career racing “for all the marbles.”

Sadler, who announced the end of his full-time career in August, was determined to make the Round of 8 in the Xfinity playoffs. Then he could set out to fulfill the biggest wish of a career that began in 1995 – to be a NASCAR champion.

The final four races of Sadler’s career begins Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“It’s cool to know that my last four races that I’m running in are not just to fill the schedule,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot on the line. We want to go there and do a good job.”

These races are also Sadler’s final chance to win a championship with the man who helped resurrect his career in its twilight and who will try do the same for Jimmie Johnson.

I KNOW A GUY

Kevin Meendering’s name was first brought up to Sadler by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was October 2015 at Dover International Speedway and Sadler, then driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had just finished signing his deal to compete for JR Motorsports the next year.

Since returning to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2011, Sadler has won five times, but only once since 2013. He’d go winless in 2015.

Earnhardt thought the then 34-year-old Meendering was the solution to his friend’s problems.

The native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had been with Hendrick Motorsports since 1999 when he was a 17-year-old intern in the team’s chassis department. By 2015, he had risen to lead engineer on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet, where the team earned eight wins, 52 top five and 96 top-10 finishes in 178 starts.

“I want him to come and be your crew chief,” Sadler recalled being told by Earnhardt. “He is one of the reasons we won the races we did later on in my career, he really changed my outlook on racing. He will do you a great job.'”

Three years later, Sadler can’t help but agree.

“Man, was he ever right.”

Together, Sadler and Meendering won three times in 2016 at Talladega, Darlington and Kentucky.

Along with 14 top fives and a series-leading 29 top 10s in 33 races that year, Sadler made it to the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But without Meendering due to a suspension, Sadler lost the title to Daniel Suarez.

In 2017, Sadler went winless, but again made it to the championship four with help from 12 top fives (tied with William Byron) and a series-leading 25 top 10s. But Sadler missed out on the title to Byron after late-race contact with Ryan Preece.

“Last year, just being so close it just makes you want to work that much harder,” Meendering said last week following the announcement he will work with Johnson next season. “Seeing the disappointment in the guys on the team and Elliott, you just want to get back there and do a little better. I don’t want to say try harder because you are putting everything you’ve got into it, but you just want to win that championship.”

Entering their final four races together, Sadler and Meendering have 38 top fives and 75 top 10s.

Those numbers boosted Meendering’s portfolio to help give him the nod to replace Chad Knaus as Johnson’s crew chief next year in the Cup Series.

“I’ve been doing this 23 years and he is by far, and I mean by far, the best crew chief I’ve ever worked with all the way across the board if you have a lot of boxes to check,” said Sadler, whose crew chiefs have included Mike Beam, Todd Parrott and 2014 Cup champion Rodney Childers. “He’s very well deserving of this opportunity and he’s showing you his loyalty. These last couple of years he’s had a ton of job offers to leave, but Hendrick is where’s he been since he started in high school and he wanted to stay in that program. His patience has paid off.”

But before Sadler walks off into the Florida sunset and Meendering begins his quest to give Johnson an eighth Cup title, they’ll make one final push to give Sadler his long sought after NASCAR title.

TUNNEL VISION

For Meendering, giving Sadler a championship is “100 percent of my focus” despite the announcement of his impending promotion.

Sadler enters the Round of 8 in fifth, tied with Cole Custer with 3,011 points. They trail Christopher Bell (3,044), Justin Allgaier (3,039) and Daniel Hemric (3,013).

Of the top five drivers remaining, only Bell and Allgaier have won this year.

“Those guys with the wins, they have distanced themselves obviously, but we are also coming around to some very good tracks for Elliott,” Meendering said. “Through that summer stretch with the road courses and stuff, that is not really our strong suit as a team, but now we get back to Kansas, Texas, those are really good tracks for Elliott and I don’t see any reason why we can’t make it to Homestead.”

In his seven starts at Kansas since 2011, Sadler has never finished worse than 12th and has three top fives, the most recent in 2016.

The race in Kansas, the series’ only visit to the 1.5-mile this season, is one that Sadler has viewed as pivotal even before the season.

“Always to me, the last couple of years (with how) our point system is, even before you go to Daytona in February, I know that Kansas is the second most important race of the whole entire season,” Sadler said. “Homestead by far is the most important. Kansas is by far the second most important because it’s how you dictate, start off that final round. That’s what my mindset is this week. I know how important Kansas is. …. That’s all I’m really focused on. I haven’t really let the outside stuff affect me yet.”

The “outside stuff” is that the next four races – 1,100 miles and 800 laps barring overtime finishes – are his last planned in NASCAR.

Sadler said he has a “mental block” about the races and they don’t feel any more special than previous seasons.

“I know deep down inside it’s my last ever shot at ever winning a NASCAR championship,” Sadler said. “I just haven’t got to that point for some reason.”

But that point will come and then it will be gone.

If he and Meendering are unable to make the championship race and win the title, how does Sadler want to be remembered?

“If not, I hope people know we did it the right way,” Sadler said. “We did it fair and we did it even and we did it like we were supposed to. I was just a small town boy from Southern Virginia that was able to make it in the sport that he loved and cherished the most and that we did it the right way.”

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Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”