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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Long: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus end mirrors their beginning in subtleness

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CONCORD, N.C. — Their beginning can be found on page 2C of the Dec. 11, 2001 edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Below a note that Ryan Newman would use the No. 12 for his rookie Winston Cup season and an item about Mark Martin’s new car chief at Roush Racing, was a small headline:

Knaus goes back to Hendrick.

The three-paragraph item stated that Chad Knaus would return to Hendrick Motorsports to be rookie Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for the 2002 season.

Nearly 17 years — and seven championships — later, the announcement of the duo’s pending departure shocked NASCAR in the same understated way.

Even though such news would merit a formal press conference streamed online, this was a casual session. Reporters sat on a couch or comfy chairs. Johnson and Knaus walked in carrying drinks in paper coffee cups.

They sat beside each other inside a building on the Hendrick Motorsports campus that didn’t exist when they began working together and discussed why a partnership that produced a record-tying number of titles and 81 wins (Johnson won twice while Knaus was suspended by NASCAR in 2006) would not continue after this year.

The end did not come because of one thing or another in particular but over time. Yes, a 53-race winless streak contributed to it, a sign that a partnership that had been feared in the garage was beatable. While they had pondered separating in the past, now it made sense.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end. Could we have finished together? Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.”

Knaus preferred to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” he said. “And that is what I have really focused on. 

“We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us.”

Their responses reveal who they are. Johnson, the California native with the heavy right foot and thoughtful, free-thinking ways and Knaus the no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When they started, they were the new kids who had been given access to car owner Rick Hendrick’s castle. Their debut season together came after Jeff Gordon had won his fourth title in 2001.

With a champion to lean on and more toys — resources — than the North Pole, Knaus played mad scientist and Johnson was Speed Racer. They won a pole in their first start. They won a race in their 10th start together. Then they won three races later.

While they fought — as brothers, as they liked to say — success kept them together. The longer they lasted, the more it seemed as if they would stay together until Johnson quit driving.

But the struggles on the track accelerated the thinking. While this team has shown more speed recently and Knaus remains confident that they can win this season, it became time for change.

“We have had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in. And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough. And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally. 

“Once you make the decision, and you start putting one foot in front of the other, I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.”

Now that we know they will be apart, the question becomes how much longer will they be in their current roles?

Johnson’s contract is through 2020. The 43-year-old would like to drive another decade or more but admits those all won’t be in Cup.

Knaus’ contract also goes through 2020. How much longer will the 47-year-old father of a newborn want to be on the road every weekend?

“As of right now, the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of,” Knaus said. “And we go and we win.”

Then Knaus added: “I doubt very highly that William and I will be together for 17 years.”

He laughed.

Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said that Knaus understands the challenges ahead.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it,” Andrews said. “He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Until then, there are six races left for Knaus and Johnson to work together, six more chances to win another race, six more Sundays of us vs. them and then this chapter ends.

And a new era begins.

Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who rose through the ranks at Hendrick and has served as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief the past three seasons at JR Motorsports. Knaus will be teamed with 20-year-old wunderkid William Byron, who is a part of the organization’s future, just as Johnson was when he began.

Off the track, a new era also begins for Johnson and Knaus.

“I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races,” Knaus said, “and I feel like we will be the same way.”

With that, Johnson and Knaus got up and walked along a quiet hallway to their next assignment. Work remained.

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Hendrick Motorsports splitting Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson after 2018 season

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Hendrick Motorsports will split one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations in the sport’s history after this season.

The organization announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, who have been together since 2002 and won a record-tying seven championships, will not work together in 2019.

Knaus will be William Byron‘s crew chief next year.

MORE: A look at where things stand in Silly Season

MORE: NBC analysts debate who wins an 8th title first: Jimmie or Chad?

Johnson will have Kevin Meendering as his crew chief in 2019. Meendering is serving as Elliott Sadler‘s crew chief in the Xfinity Series this season at JR Motorsports.

Darian Grubb, who is Byron’s crew chief this season, will be promoted to technical director at Hendrick Motorsports.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations. This has been an incredible, storybook run.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Knaus and Johnson have been together 17 seasons, the longest active streak. Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are the next longest driver-crew chief combination at eight years.

Johnson enters Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega SuperSpeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) on a career-long 53-race winless streak.

[More: Johnson plays joke on No. 78 team with special gifts]

Since last season, Johnson has three wins, six top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes in 66 starts. That is the worst two-year period for Johnson and Knaus in their time together.

In their time together, they won one Daytona 500 (Johnson won a second while Knaus was suspended), two Southern 500s, four Brickyard 400s and four Coca-Cola 600s.

Pairing Meendering with Johnson next year brings Meendering back to Hendrick Motorsports. Meendering spent 16 years with the organization, becoming the lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s team in 2011. Meendering has spent the past three seasons as Sadler’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, leading Sadler to three wins and 38 top-five finishes.

On pairing Knaus with Byron, Hendrick said: “You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent. The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.”

JR Motorsports to keep championship-contending tandem together

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JR Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that crew chief Kevin Meendering will remain with Elliott Sadler this season.

Meendering and Sadler recorded three Xfinity wins last year in their first season together. Meendering also helped Sadler score a career-best 29 top-10 results and finish runner-up for the series title to Daniel Suarez.

The announcement was included in a team release about Hunt Brothers Pizza serving as the primary sponsor for Sadler’s car in two races in each of the next two seasons.

Elliott Sadler’s substitute crew chief will ‘lean heavily’ on veteran driver in Xfinity title race

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In the biggest race of Elliott Sadler‘s NASCAR career, the driver will have a new voice talking to him over the radio during the Ford EcoBoost 300 on NBCSN.

After the one-race suspension of crew chief Kevin Meendering for a lug nut violation, Sadler will be working with Mike Bumgarner in the Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bumgarner, JR Motorsports’ race operations manager, will be crew chiefing his first race since 2014.

“I think having someone like Elliott Sadler alone speaks for itself,” Bumgarner said in teleconference Wednesday. “I’ll lean heavily on Elliott. He’s the leader of this team as well as Kevin, and these guys have worked really hard the last few days to set forth a plan to move forward to Homestead and have a shot to win this championship.”

Bumgarner steps into the role after Sadler joked at Phoenix International Raceway that team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be his crew chief.

“It would have definitely made it easier on me,” said Bumgarner with a laugh. “I would have much rather just went down there and sat back and watched.”

A 22-year NASCAR veteran, Bumgarner joined JR Motorsports in 2013 as a crew chief for Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet on the No. 5 car. In 2014, he transitioned into the race operations manager position.

On Saturday he will try to finish the job Meendering started, giving Sadler, a 21-year veteran of NASCAR racing, his first championship. The No. 1 team enters Homestead with three wins, 13 top fives and 28 top 10s.

“I don’t see much of a challenge from my side,” Bumgarner said. “Kevin has a good group of guys, and these guys know what their role is played … It’s just more or less for me just to guide these guys along and answer any questions and try to do my best at calling a good race and getting Elliott in and off pit road. I think that’s probably the biggest task.”

Navigating pit road will also involve communicating with Sadler’s spotter, Brett Griffin.

“(Sadler) and Brett, they have a good combination as far as speaking and talking together, and I think that is going to make it easy,” Bumgarner said. “Elliott knows what he needs to do with the race car. These guys, they’ve shown on paper or speed charts as the week goes on every week, they progressively get better as the week goes, and I think that’s due to all the roles that Kevin has set aside as far as his guys and Elliott.”