Friday 5: Elliott Sadler excited to be back in a car at Richmond

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Elliott Sadler doesn’t look back on his decision to step away from full-time racing with regret.

“It is 100 percent the best decision I made,” he told NBC Sports this week.

But he’s also looking forward to his return to the Xfinity Series tonight for Kaulig Racing at Richmond Raceway. This is one of two races Sadler is scheduled to drive this season (the other is Sept. 14 at Las Vegas). 

Sadler, 43, said it became clear last year that it was time for him to step back.

“A few things helped in my decision,” said Sadler, who has 13 Xfinity and three Cup victories. “I know what it takes to race at this level. I understand the homework you have to do, the videos you have to watch, the notes you have to take, the simulation you have to study, the working out that you have to do, the whole mental and physical part of it.

“I was at the point last year where I did not and just could not do all the things that I wanted to do. I lost that drive to do it 100 percent. I couldn’t make myself go to the gym, every day, every night. I couldn’t make myself watch videos … all the time. So I lost a little bit of that drive. I didn’t want to half-ass it. I’m not that kind of person.

Elliott Sadler’s best finish at Richmond Raceway in the Xfinity Series is second in this car in May 2005. (Photo By Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“I knew that if I was not going to do everything that I knew I needed to do to compete at a 100 percent level like some of these other guys, like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, some of these guys that I know work their butts off to stay in the shape they’re in and live on the edge, there was no need for me to do it.”

Sadler said another key factor was being more involved with his family and children, 9-year-old Wyatt and 7-year-old Austyn.

“I think that is why I lost some of my drive to do this every weekend,” Sadler said of racing. “It’s hard to race 33 weekends a year when you’ve got kids at home. I’m not singing the blues by no means. I was in a good point in my life where if I had to make a decision or wanted to make the decision to stay at home more and be a part of my kids’ life I could and that’s the decision I ended up making.”

Sadler is coaching his kids in sports and noted that earlier this week their team won a baseball tournament championship in extra innings in Richmond.

“I told my wife, after the game we were driving home, I said, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “This is one of the happiest days of my life, watching all these kids fight through what they did to win the championship. That’s what it is all about.”

Sadler admits he is excited to get back into the car this weekend. Although he’s missed the first seven races, he isn’t worried. He looks to friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran in Richmond’s Xfinity race in September in his only start of the year and finished fourth, leading 96 of 250 laps. Sadler seeks his first career Xfinity win at Richmond.

“I’m not putting a uniform on to go ride around and be fan,” Sadler said. “I could just buy a ticket if I wanted to be a fan. I want to be a part of the race and a part of the action.”

2. Heavy on the gas

Denny Hamlin acknowledged this week on Twitter that his pit road speeding penalties are “frustrating for me … frustrating for the team.”

Hamlin was caught speeding on pit road last weekend at Bristol after he exited first with less than 85 laps to go. He restarted outside the top 15 and went on to finish fifth.

The speeding penalty was his third of the season, tying Hamlin with Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie for most in Cup in the first eight races of the season.

Such penalties are not new to Hamlin. His 23 pit road speeding penalties since 2016 rank third in the series. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 19.8% of the 116 Cup races run since 2016, according to Racing Insights.

The drivers with the most pit road speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) since 2016 are:

27 – Michael McDowell

24 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

23 – Denny Hamlin

16 – Austin Dillon

16 – David Ragan

15 – Kasey Kahne

14 – Corey LaJoie

14 – Kyle Busch

14 – Paul Menard

Hamlin is a bit better in the playoffs the past three years. He has five speeding penalties. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 16.7% of the 30 playoff races run since 2016.

Here are the drivers with the most speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) in playoff races since 2016:

11 – Michael McDowell

9 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

6 – David Ragan

5 – Daniel Suarez

5 – Denny Hamlin

5 – Kasey Kahne

5 – Landon Cassill

5 – Matt Kenseth

4 – Corey LaJoie

4 – J.J. Yeley

4 – Jimmie Johnson

4 – Paul Menard

3. How much more change is needed to qualifying?

NASCAR told Cup teams Thursday that it was reducing the first and second round of qualifying from 10 minutes to five for today at Richmond Raceway. The final round will remain five minutes.

NASCAR stated that this is not the new qualifying format moving forward. The change was made after all 24 cars did not go on to the track in the first five minutes of the second round last weekend at Bristol.

NASCAR has made it clear it doesn’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. Officials still have to figure out what to do about qualifying at bigger tracks where drafting plays a role.

But changing the rules time after time and spending so much time discussing qualifying — instead of the race — makes it seem as if the sport has fallen into a rabbit hole on this matter.

If the sport is against single-car qualifying and officials need to keep tweaking the format time after time, the question becomes is qualifying necessary?

Want to make setting the lineup simple? Fine. Make the starting lineup based on how drivers finished in the previous race.

Finishing order from the previous race also determines the pit stall picks. If the car didn’t race the week before, it starts behind all those that ran that race. If there are more cars than spots, then have single-car qualifying among the cars that did not compete the race before.

Problem solved. Now the sport can move on to something else.

4. Working together (finally)

It took a while but Michael McDowell got Drew Blickensderfer to be his crew chief. Blickensderfer was someone McDowell had targeted previously.

“When I was at (Leavine Family Racing), I tried really hard to get Drew, and the biggest reason is watching him from the garage and two, I became good friends with Carl (Edwards),” said McDowell, now with Front Row Motorsports. “And Carl and I would have fun conversations, and Carl is an intense guy, and I said, ‘Hey if you were going to go to battle, who would you go with?’ He’s like, ‘I’d take Drew with me.’

“So that was always ingrained a little bit in my mind, and then just seeing Drew, and I see him from afar, and I felt he’s always overachieved and always had that leadership and that intensity. Yeah, it’s just like one of those things where you just know when you know, and so I fought hard for years to try to get him, and it just never really worked out, and opportunity became available kind of late in the game and late in the (off)season and really thankful to get him over there.”

McDowell saw firsthand how Blickensderfer battled when he stepped in after McDowell went to the ground in his confrontation with Daniel Suarez at ISM Raceway in March. Blickensderfer pinned Suarez against the hood of McDowell’s car on pit road.

“The battle part wasn’t a reference to Suarez, but you know, you can tell if you look at Drew and look at his ears, they’re closed up for a reason,” McDowell said. “He’s been on the mat and on the floor a lot. And him and I kind of joked about that because he obviously stepped in there, and you could just see it was instincts. He’s got that fire about him. I didn’t want him because he can take care of all the drivers for me … but that intensity is what you’re looking for.”

McDowell enters this weekend 28th in points. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 but has had one top 20 since, placing 15th at Texas.

5. Bounty award for fans

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman noted on Thursday’s NASCAR America that he’d like to see a bounty paid to any driver that can beat Kyle Busch, who has won three of the first eight races this season. Kligerman noted it’s an old short-track promotion done when someone dominates.

It’s a good idea, but why not include the fans? If someone beats Kyle Busch – or better yet, if any team can win other than Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske – then maybe that track takes the number of the winning car and deducts that much from the ticket (with a ceiling as to how much those tickets can be reduced). Make the fans a part of something like that.

And tracks could still win by offering some sort of special ticket price if Busch wins or a JGR car or Team Penske car does.

No, this isn’t going to suddenly pack every track’s grandstands. That’s not the intent. It would be a way to have a little fun and maybe help fans with the cost of tickets and encourage a few others to purchase them.

2019 Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award finalists announced

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Comcast has announced the three finalists for this year’s Community Champion of the Year Award, which recognizes the philanthropic efforts of individuals within the NASCAR industry.

Through the award Comcast has donated $600,000 to 15 different NASCAR-affiliated organizations to honor their efforts and help further the impact of their causes.

The three finalists are:

  • Artie Kempner, NASCAR on FOX Coordinating Director and Co-Founder of Autism Delaware
  • David Ragan, Cup Series driver and Ambassador for Shriners Hospitals for Children
  • Mike Tatoian, President and CEO of Dover International Speedway and USO Delaware Chairman

The award winner will be selected by a panel composed of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano, who won the award in 2018. Comcast will award $60,000 to the winner’s affiliated charity, and $30,000 to each of the two remaining finalists’ selected charities.

The winner will be announced Nov. 14 at W. South Beach Hotel in Miami in conjunction with the NASCAR Championship Weekend.

Artie Kempner (Wilmington, Delaware) – In 1998, a small group of parents got together in the living room of Marcy and Artie Kempner’s house in Wilmington, Delaware. The Kempner’s had three boys and their middle son, Ethan, had been diagnosed with autism a year earlier. All of the parents at the table had children on the autism spectrum. That gathering was the beginning of Autism Delaware and Artie became the group’s first president. The organization started as a simple support group, but 20+ years later it’s a statewide service agency, fielding more than 1,500 calls from families annually, offering lifespan services, as well as social and recreational program for families in a safe and welcoming environment.

Kempner’s work on the Drive for Autism Celebrity-Am Golf Outing, helped the group raise the necessary money to launch its critically acclaimed adult vocational and employment program known as POW&R, Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation. Now in its 11th year, POW&R assesses an individual’s strengths and vocational goals, and matches them with community-based employment, volunteer and recreational opportunities. Today, the program serves over 150 adults with autism in paid employment.

David Ragan (Unadilla, Georgia) – Since 2012, Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan has been dedicated to supporting Shriners Hospital for Children as a part of their ambassador program. Ragan spends much of his off-time visiting hospitals, fundraising, as well as inviting patients to the race track for once-in-a-lifetime experiences at NASCAR events. Ragan’s passion for the hospital goes beyond just the bare-minimum appearance, he makes an effort to remember each patient’s name + story and will continue to stay in touch long after he meets them. Ragan knows the children and families he meets are likely struggling and wants to do what he can to put a smile on their face. His association with the Shriners, as well as being a Shriner himself, has not only brought attention to the hospitals and the great work they are doing, but has increased donations from race fans and team partners. Many people aren’t aware of the great work that the Shriners do, but Ragan has been a strong voice for them for the past 10 years and has changed countless lives because of his great work.

Mike Tatoian (Dover, Delaware) – Mike Tatoian has been a staple of the Delaware and mid-Atlantic charitable communities, particularly with local military organizations at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, since he began his tenure at the “Monster Mile” in 2007. One of his longest commitments has been with United Service Organizations. Established during World War II, the USO supports U.S. service members wherever they are, including on-base, deployed abroad, passing through an airport or in local communities at more than 200 locations around the world. One-particular duty that distinguishes USO Delaware is it’s the only USO in the world that shares the responsibility of bringing home fallen service members, working alongside other units such as the Air Force Mortuary Affairs, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the Joint Personal Effects Depot and the Families of the Fallen. For 13 years, Tatoian has assisted USO Delaware with countless programs and currently serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Council for the organization.

NASCAR America’s The MotorSports Hour live at 5 p.m. ET

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America’s The Motorsports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Krista Voda is joined by Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger as they discuss the major storylines in multiple racing disciplines, including NASCAR.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Clint Bowyer returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020

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Stewart-Haas Racing announced Thursday afternoon that it has extended its deal with Clint Bowyer through the 2020 season.

Bowyer, 40, will drive the No. 14 Ford for a fourth season after joining the team in 2017.

Bowyer joins teammate Aric Almirola in recently renewing deals with SHR.

The news comes after Bowyer made his 500th career Cup start last weekend at Talladega and ahead of the Cup Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), which is Bowyer’s home track.

“I’m proud to be back with Stewart-Haas Racing next year and very happy to announce it the week leading into my home race,” Bowyer said in a press release. “This is a team filled with racers who love to compete, and as a racecar driver, it’s exactly where you want to be. Great equipment, great teammates, and we’re all backed by great people, which starts at the top with Tony and Gene. They know how to build some fast Ford Mustangs and I’m the lucky guy who gets to drive ‘em.”

Said team co-owner Tony Stewart: “Clint Bowyer is a racer to his core who brings passion and energy to our race team. He’s exactly who I wanted to drive my No. 14 car and we’re very happy to have him continue with Stewart-Haas Racing.”

Bowyer enter’s Sunday’s race facing elimination from the playoffs. He is 11th in the standings and 24 points behind the cutoff line to advance.

Through 31 races this year Bowyer has no wins, seven top fives and 15 top-10 finishes.

Xfinity Playoff primer for Kansas Speedway

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Did you miss the Xfinity Series last weekend?

While Cup and Truck Series teams battled it out at Talladega Superspeedway, Xfinity teams were enjoying a much deserved week off after 15 straight weekends of racing.

Now it’s time to go back to work this weekend at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC),as the Round of 8 begins. Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway complete the round.

Here’s how things looks for the eight remaining playoff drivers.

TOP GUNS

The second round begins with the “Big 3” of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick still holding sizable points advantages over the rest of the field.

In the reseeded standings, Bell is 48 points above the cutline and leads Custer (+36 points) and Reddick (+30). Bell and Custer padded their playoff point totals (62 for Bell and 50 for Custer) with their respective first round wins at Richmond and Dover.

Reddick (44 playoff points) will try to rebound from a lackluster first round where he only had one top five (Charlotte Roval) and finishes of 10th and 12th.

Bell earned his first career Xfinity win at Kansas in 2017 but was eliminated in a wreck on the first lap of this race last year.

While Custer was also involved in the Lap 1 crash and finished 26th, he rebounded in the Texas race to earn his first win of the year. Entering this weekend he has finished 10th or better in the last seven races.

“I think we need to go in the same way we have all year and that mentality is that we will have one of the cars to beat when we unload,” Custer said in a press release. “All year we have had speed off the truck and that has shown in practice speeds along with our seven wins. If we keep our heads up at these tracks that haven’t been kind to us in the past, then our luck is sure to turn around at some point and our goal is for that to happen this weekend in Kansas.”

NEEDING A LITTLE MORE

Outside the prolific “Big 3”  – who have won 19 of 29 races so far – the most consistent drivers this season have been Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Chase Briscoe.

Cindric (+3 points above cutline) remains the only non-“Big 3” Xfinity regular with more than one win this season. He earned the most points in the Round of 12 with 146.

Allgaier (-3 points from cutline) is winless in his last 37 starts. He earned the second most points in the first round with 145. In this round last year, his best result was fifth at Texas, sandwiched between a 38th at Kansas (Lap 1 wreck) and a 24th at ISM Raceway.

Briscoe (-4 points) enters Kansas with tops 10s in 12 of the last 13 races. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished ninth or better in all three first round races.

“We’ve been running pretty well recently and have really shown a lot of speed, so hopefully we are fast right out of the box when we get to Kansas,” Briscoe said in a press release. “We have had two straight poles (Charlotte and Dover) and probably should have had two wins in those races. It’s all about sealing the deal now and capitalizing on the speed that we have shown these last few weeks. I feel like Kansas and Texas are my two best tracks in this round and we’ll look to have a couple great runs, ideally a win, and get ourselves in solid position for the championship round.”

WORK TO DO

The last two spots in the Round of 8 are occupied by JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett and Noah Gragson.

This is the deepest in the playoffs that Annett (-8 points) has reached since returning to the Xfinity Series (two visits). He had two top 10s in the first round and has not finished worse than 15th in the last 13 races.

Outside of Allgaier, Gragson (-12 points) is the only other remaining playoff driver without a win this season.

He had one top five in the first round (fifth at Charlotte Roval) and two seventh-place finishes.

Playoff standings