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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Bent fenders, first-time winners define start of NBC’s NASCAR schedule

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We’re four races into NBC Sports’ portion of the NASCAR schedule and actor Michael Rooker was right about one thing: things have gotten real.

There have been four Cup races shown on NBC networks and each has delivered a finish – or lightning strike – worth talking about.

Each race has been won by a different driver who also was making their first trip to victory lane this year. Two earned their first career Cup wins.

Here’s a look at the how the second half of the season has unfolded.

June 30, 2019 – Chicagoland Speedway

Alex Bowman finally punched his ticket to victory lane in the Cup Series.

It took 134 series starts, three consecutive runner-up finishes earlier in the year and a lengthy rain delay to begin the race day.

Racing under the lights, Bowman dueled with Kyle Larson over the last eight laps, with the two drivers making contact with six laps to go as Bowman drafted off the left side of Larson’s car.

After he took the checkered flag, Bowman’s victory lane visit was delayed even further when his No. 88 Chevrolet got stuck in the rain-soaked infield.

“I’m the dumb guy that won the race and then got stuck in the mud,” Bowman told NBCSN.

July 7 – Daytona International Speedway

Though there wasn’t a dramatic on-track finish to the final scheduled July Cup race at Daytona, there was a surprise winner.

Justin Haley had to wait a significantly shorter amount of time than Bowman to get his first Cup win, celebrating his in 131 fewer races.

Following a massive crash with 43 laps to go, leader Kurt Busch and a group of other teams elected to pit when NASCAR said they would go back to green in one lap.

Then lightning struck within eight miles of the track.

The field was brought to pit road with 33 laps to go and Haley scored as the leader in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet, a team and car in their first year of existence.

The race never resumed as NASCAR eventually called the race official.

“I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega,” Haley told NBCSN. “It’s just unreal. I don’t know how to feel.”

While Busch had been on the “wrong side of a lightning bolt” he wouldn’t have to wait long for his own celebration.

July 13 – Kentucky Speedway

“Hell yeah! Hell yeah!” bellowed Kurt Busch on the start-finish line after the Quaker State 400.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver had plenty of reasons to be excited.

He’d just triumphed in an overtime finish over his little brother Kyle Busch.

It was the first time Kurt Busch had won in a 1-2 Cup finish against Kyle.

The elder Busch survived making contact with his brother twice on the final lap, including as they exited Turn 4 in the race to the checkered flag.

The victory was Kurt Busch’s first since joining CGR in December and also was the first career win for crew chief Matt McCall in 164 starts. The victory snapped a 64-race winless streak for Ganassi stretching back to the 2017 regular-season finale at Richmond.

July 21 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick is the latest driver to end a lengthy winless streak with dramatic flair.

Sunday saw the Stewart-Haas Racing driver end a 21-race drought after he held off Denny Hamlin over the final 35 laps while racing on older tires.

After Hamlin and other drivers pitted under the final caution, Harvick and two other cars stayed out.

Hamlin wasn’t able to get within striking distance until the last lap. The two veterans slammed sheet metal twice, with Hamlin’s failed bump-and-run in Turn 1 and then Harvick cutting off Hamlin’s path as they exited Turn 4.

“I knew that (Hamlin) was gonna take a shot,” Harvick said. “I would have taken a shot. I stood on the brakes and just tried to keep it straight. I just didn’t want to get him back from the inside and let him have another shot. I wanted to at least be in control of who was gonna have contact in Turn 3 and 4. It was a heck of a finish, closer than what we wanted, but it was our only chance.”

Hamlin was left to re-think the final lap as Harvick celebrated in the background.

Second sucks,” Hamlin told NBCSN.

Up Next: Pocono

Six races remain in the regular season and the next chance for Cup drama will come at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), the 2.5-mile triangle that the series visited in June.

But the circumstances will be a little bit different. After complaints about the competition in June, the track will apply the PJ1 traction compound to areas in all three turns.

It’s the first time the track has applied the traction agent to its surface.

It will also be the third consecutive race the Cup Series has held on a track treated with it, following Kentucky and New Hampshire.

And we all know how those races ended.

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New Hampshire winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickHe no longer has to answer the question of when is he going to win (same for Stewart-Haas Racing). Now the question is if this will lead to a string of wins for the No. 4 team, which has shown speed but not been able to capitalize on it.

Parity — Kevin Harvick marked the seventh different winner in the last seven Cup races, the longest streak of the season.

Ryan Newman First, he was in a backup car and had to start at the rear on a track where passing is difficult. Then, he had a broken coil wire that sapped his engine’s power with about 100 laps to go. His team recovered and he finished seventh for his fifth top 10 in the last six races. Also, he climbed into a playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto His fifth-place finish was his third top-10 result in the last five races. Good progress for Leavine Family Racing.

LOSERS

Jimmie JohnsonBack-to-back 30th-place finishes have dropped the seven-time champion out of a playoff spot. He’s never missed NASCAR’s postseason — and is the only driver who can say that he’s been in the Chase/playoffs every year since its inception in 2004. Will that streak continue? Or will it end this year?

Richard Childress Racing — RCR cars finished 37th (Daniel Hemric) and 32nd (Austin Dillon). Hemric’s day ended after contact from Daniel Suarez. Dillon blew a right front tire early and that damaged his car.

Hendrick Motorsports — Alex Bowman’s team went through two cars before Sunday’s race. William Byron had to go to a backup because of an incident in practice. Mechanical issues caused Jimmie Johnson to finish 30th and Chase Elliott to place 29th. Bowman placed 14th and Byron led the way with a 12th-place finish. The best thing about the weekend for Hendrick Motorsports is it is over.

Kyle Larson — Two crashes within the last 100 laps made for a bad day Sunday.

With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is.

“If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”