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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