Drew Blickensderfer

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.

Long: Emotions boil in Phoenix, providing spark for NASCAR

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Michael McDowell’s actions can be questioned, but his explanation for the fight with Daniel Suarez on Friday was what NASCAR fans have waited to hear.

“It’s emotions,” McDowell said.

Amen.

“That’s just the way it is,” McDowell said.

Not exactly.

It was that way in NASCAR all the way to the 1990s before the sport gentrified to placate sponsors. The trade-off for money was losing one’s soul.

The sport seeks to reclaim its spirit and return to those rougher ways. That doesn’t mean going all the way back to the untamed “Wild West” days. But it’s OK for a driver to show their anger. And many have in recent years.

The fight at Phoenix between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell — during qualifying of all things — illustrates the heightened tensions this season.

Joey Logano predicted two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway that the new rules package, which is intended to tighten the field, “is going to cause probably more wrecks and more tempers are going to fly and more drama is going to be there.”

Other than Daytona, there haven’t been the wrecks — last week’s Las Vegas race had cautions only for the two stage breaks — but the tempers are rising.

NASCAR’s season of drama could be beginning. And that could be a good thing for fans, who want to see more emotion on and off the track.

Suarez was upset with McDowell on Friday for getting in his way during the first round of qualifying. That slowed Suarez, who failed to advance. Suarez will start 28th. McDowell starts 27th.

After the round, Suarez went to McDowell’s car to express his displeasure. McDowell, upset because he felt Suarez tried to wreck him, shoved Suarez to trigger the scuffle.

They soon became entangled before Suarez threw McDowell to the ground. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, rushed in and shoved Suarez onto the hood of McDowell’s car. Suarez tried to kick McDowell while still on the car.

Suarez said afterward that McDowell’s actions hurt him for the race. Suarez’s team now has a later pick for pit stalls, which are selected in order of starting position. And Suarez will have to start deeper in the field in what is a short race, lasting 312 miles.

Qualifying poorly and having a bad pit stall pick hurt Logano at Atlanta. His stall was between the pit stalls of Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. Logano lost at least 10 spots on each of the first two pit stops.

In a short race, that could be hard to overcome. Plus, drivers talk about the challenges of the “dirty air” of running behind a competitor. Starting deeper will provide a greater challenge for Suarez.

So it was understandable why he was upset when he headed to McDowell’s car on pit road.

This is what NASCAR has sought and tried to foster since the “Boys, have at it” years to now (NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler Friday). Fans complain that drivers are too weary of upsetting sponsors by their actions. That mattered little to McDowell or Suarez.

This is the second time this season that McDowell has angered a fellow Ford driver.

Michael McDowell and Joey Logano discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Photo: NBC Sports

Logano was mad at McDowell for pushing the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of Logano. McDowell, who had not been enamored with how Ford drivers raced him in that event, said after that race that “my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win.”

McDowell isn’t the only driver who has been at the subject of driver frustrations.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has upset a fellow competitor in each of the first three races. Logano was angered by a move Stenhouse made during the Daytona 500 and said on his radio: “Ricky Stanhkouse. God. He sucks.”

Truex was furious with Stenhouse, who was a lap down, for not getting out of his way as Truex attempted to chase down leader (and eventual winner) Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Truex finished second but left convinced he could have won had he been able to get around Stenhouse sooner. Stenhouse discounted Truex’s argument.

Last week, Stenhouse and Erik Jones raced each other as if they were at Martinsville instead of Las Vegas.

Friday, Truex could enjoy the show. He was a fan as he watched McDowell and Suarez rumble.

Had Truex ever seen a fight on pit road during qualifying?

“I did today,” he said.

“It was awesome.”

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Daniel Suarez, Michael McDowell scuffle on pit road during qualifying

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Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell scuffled on pit road after the first round of qualifying Friday at ISM Raceway.

Neither Ford driver advanced to the second round. Many cars waited until late in the session to make a qualifying run and that caused cars to run up on competitors on the track. McDowell qualified 27th. Suarez qualified 28th.

Suarez was upset with McDowell and went to McDowell’s car after the round. McDowell shoved Suarez away. They then grabbed each other and Suarez threw McDowell to the ground before crew members jumped in.

Suarez was thrown onto the hood of McDowell’s car and pinned there by McDowell’s crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. Suarez continued to kick at McDowell while on the hood of McDowell’s car. McDowell grabbed Suarez’s foot and tried to pull Suarez off his car.

“It’s a lack of respect,” Suarez told Fox Sports 1. “Track position is very big in these races these days. You have to qualify well to have a good spot on pit road and have a good start on the race.

“It’s just a lack of respect. Everyone in the garage knows the second lap (in qualifying) is a good one. You have to try to get out of the way if someone is coming on their hot lap and he didn’t.”

Suarez said later: “I’m obviously mad because track position is the situation in racing today.  I don’t really care about starting in the front or the back, but what is very important is the pit stall selection, which we’re gonna be bad, but I have a very strong race car.  We showed that in practice and we’re gonna be able to overcome that tomorrow.”

McDowell told FS1: “Just miscommunication on the racetrack. We all kind of waited until the end and you just had a lot of traffic. Just unfortunate. He was upset that I held him up on his good lap and then he tried to crash us and I just didn’t appreciate it.

“Just heat of the moment stuff. It’s racing. These shorter practice sessions, shorter qualifying, getting late going through tech, the intensity ramps up, so it’s all part of it.”

McDowell added later: “What I told Daniel, everybody makes mistakes. That’s just part of it.  Not every qualifying session is gonna go how you want it.  It’s not how we wanted it to go.  It hurt us as well.  It’s not the race.  We’ve got 300-and-some-odd laps to figure it out on Sunday.”

Richard Petty Motorsports promotes Derek Stamets to Bubba Wallace’s crew chief

Photo: Dustin Long
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Richard Petty Motorsports announced Thursday it has promoted lead engineer Derek Stamets to crew chief for Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Chevrolet.

Stamets has been RPM’s lead engineer since 2012, being part of race wins with Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Prior to joining RPM, he recorded multiple Cup wins with a number of drivers including NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan.

“Derek was a logical decision for us to move up,” RPM director of competition Philippe Lopez said in a media release. “He spent the full season with Bubba and our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 program last year and has been with our organization for seven seasons. We want to keep the chemistry that Derek and Bubba built together while continuing the experience we built with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing. We are confident in Derek’s leadership of the No. 43 team.”

Stamets will begin his new duties immediately and take part in the NASCAR test with Wallace today and Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He replaces Drew Blickensderfer, who moved to crew chief of Front Row Racing’s No. 34 Ford, driven by Michael McDowell.

“Derek has a lot of knowledge of our program,” Wallace said. “He’s not having to learn a new program and I’m not having to learn a new personality. I’m comfortable working with Derek and this makes the most sense for improvement. I think he’s eager to make more of the decisions and put his footprint on our race team.”

Wallace is entering his second full-time season on the Cup circuit. As a rookie in 2018, Wallace had one top five – a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 – and three top-10 finishes, with an average start of 24.8 and an average finish of 24.5. He also had six DNFs.

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Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports announce crew chief changes

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Bubba Wallace will have a new crew chief in 2019 with Drew Blickensderfer leaving to take the same position with Front Row Motorsports.

Richard Petty Motorsports said in a statement it will announce a new crew chief “at the appropriate time.” Meanwhile competition director Philippe Lopez will lead the No. 43 team’s efforts to prepare for the season.

Wallace finished the 2018 season 28th in points. He earned three top 10s, including second place in the Daytona 500.

Blickensderfer, who was with RPM since 2012, heads to Front Row Motorsports, which announced its crew chief lineup Wednesday.

Blickensderfer will be paired with Michael McDowell on the No. 34 Ford. Blickensderfer replaces Derrick Finley, who will serve as FRM’s technical director.

Mike Kelley joins FRM to crew chief rookie Matt Tifft and the No. 36 Ford. Kelley was previously with Roush Fenway Racing where he was crew chief on the No. 60 Xfinity car. Kelley is a two-time Xfinity champion, winning with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011 and 2012.

Seth Barbour will return for his second full season as crew chief on David Ragan‘s No. 38 Ford. He joined the team in the middle of the 2017 season as a crew chief for Landon Cassill.

The crew chief moves come as the team recently announced it had moved shop locations.

 

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