Friday 5: A final quest at a ‘childhood dream’

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Elliott Sadler is blunt when he considers his NASCAR career ending without a championship.

“(It) would be a huge void in my life,” he said.

The 43-year-old driver, in his 22nd and final full-time NASCAR season, makes his last run at an Xfinity title beginning with tonight’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Four times in the last seven years Sadler finished runner-up for the Xfinity crown, including last season when he lost the title in the final laps to JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.

“Last year really hurt,” Sadler said. “Really, really hurt. We were in position to win that championship. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent over it yet.”

Sadler was upset last year with Ryan Preece, who slowed Sadler by challenging him for position as Sadler tried to hold off Byron with 10 laps left. Byron got by Sadler. Any hopes Sadler had for a title ended when he made contact with Preece’s car and cut a right front tire. 

Sadler’s anger bubbled after the race and he yelled at Preece on pit road as NASCAR officials stood between them.

Sadler, who competed full-time in Cup from 1999-2010, has called it a “childhood dream” to win a NASCAR championship.

“If we’re not able to win a championship, it would definitely be a scar in my mind of not being a NASCAR champion after putting 20 years of effort into it, after being a kid and a fan and dreaming of being a part of this sport,” he said. “Now, that will not define me as a dad or define me as a person. I’ll still be able, hopefully, to do good things in my community, but it will definitely leave a mark.”

Before he gets to that point, he will have to get through his final race at his home track tonight. Richmond Raceway will honor the Emporia, Virginia, native by having Sadler’s children help with the command to start engines.

Even better for him would be going to Victory Lane with his family. Sadler has never won at Richmond in 56 starts in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. Asked to recall his biggest moment at the track, he instantly brings up the 2005 Xfinity race when Carl Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win.

“I’m probably more nervous about going to Richmond, trying to win the race than I am trying to make it to Homestead,” Sadler said.

When the season ends in two months, don’t expect to see Sadler at the track often in the future.

“I don’t see myself involved in any racing at all,” Sadler said of his post-driving career. “I’ve been offered a job to come do TV, but I don’t see traveling away from home to talk about racing.”

Instead he’ll coach youth sports teams.

“My dad was a huge coach growing up,” Sadler said. “My brother is a wonderful coach and I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I love it. We’re at the facility every night hopefully changing kids’ lives. It would be hard for me to do both at 100 percent. It’s not really that I’m retiring from racing, I’m retiring to coaching and to my kids.”

2. What might have been

Jimmie Johnson has witnessed how fine a line it is between winning and finishing in the pack the past two weeks.

At Indianapolis and Las Vegas, Johnson ran with Brad Keselowski during parts of those races only to see Keselowski win both and Johnson finish far behind.

After the end of stage 2 at Indianapolis, Keselowski was 16th and Johnson was 17th. About 30 laps later, Keselowski was third and Johnson fifth. Keselowski went on to win and Johnson finished 16th.

At Las Vegas, Keselowski was sixth and Johnson seventh with just over 100 laps left. Keselowski won. Johnson was headed for a top-five finish before contact late in the race with Kurt Busch’s car cut a tire and forced Johnson to pit. Johnson finished 22nd.

Keselowski has said that he has not had the fastest car in each of the three races he’s won heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team seek to perform the way Keselowski’s team has.

“Drivers make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Pit stops can go wrong. Unfortunate racing luck can happen. To get all of that to rise together, it takes a little bit of time. We have made a nice jump in speed. I still think we have some room to go there, but now we need to execute on all levels and take advantages of those opportunities that (Keselowski) has.”

While the team seeks to find that speed and execute, Johnson has gone winless in a career-long 50 races.

“I’ve been in a deeper hole before, my own personal experiences in motorsports,” Johnson said, referring to early in his career in off-road racing and then in NASCAR when he “risked it all” and moved to North Carolina to pursue a career in stock car racing.

“I didn’t have as big a spotlight on me and wasn’t a seven-time champion, so nobody really remembers those except me. So I know I will get through this. I’ve been through worse.

“We are moving the right direction. I believe we have hit the valley and are climbing back out.”

He’ll need to do so to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Johnson enters Richmond six points behind teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round.

3. Cole Custer’s self-assessment

With no driver announced for the No. 41 Cup car next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, it was easy for some to think that Cole Custer could move up to that ride.

Car owner Gene Haas seemed to quell such talk last weekend at Las Vegas. While saying he believes Custer “is a good talent,” Haas said of the young driver: “He needs to prove that he can win consistently in Xfinity before I think we’ll consider him for a Cup ride.”

Custer has one Xfinity victory in 64 career series starts. He’s placed second or third in five races this season.

So where does Custer believe he needs to improve?

“I think there are little things that I can do better,” he said. “Having the Cup experience this year has helped me with what happens in that series.

“I think for the most part I have speed every single weekend (in Xfinity). It’s just a matter getting the restarts right and working traffic better and controlling the race when you have the fastest car.”

Custer, who is in the Xfinity playoffs, also will run in Saturday’s Cup race. He’ll drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing. It will be Custer’s third career Cup start.

4. Going for 4 in a row

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win four consecutive Cup races in the last 20 years. That’s the feat Brad Keselowski will seek to equal Saturday night at Richmond.

Since NSACAR’s modern era (1972), eight drivers have won four consecutive races: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

5. NASCAR’s 5th President

Steve Phelps will become the fifth president in NASCAR’s history on Oct. 1.

Bill France Sr. held the position from 1948-72. Bill France Jr. took over from his father until 2000. Mike Helton was in that role from 2000-2015 before he was promoted to Vice Chairman of NASCAR.

The president’s position was not filled after Helton’s promotion until Brent Dewar took over that role July 13, 2017. Phelps is replacing Dewar, who will remain with NASCAR through the end of the season and transition to a senior consulting and advisory role in 2019.

Phelps will oversee all competition and business operations for the sanctioning body in his new role.

He has been more visible at races lately and presented Kyle Busch the regular-season champion’s trophy at two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In January, Phelps, as NASCAR’s chief global sales and marketing officer at the time, was thrust into the controversy about how NASCAR marketed younger drivers after Busch complained about the tactics and Clint Bowyer raised questions about the sanctioning body’s actions.

In July, Phelps defended the sport’s ability to attract sponsors.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” he said at Pocono Raceway during an announcement that Gander Mountain will sponsor the Truck Series beginning in 2019. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works.

“So people tend to focus on, ‘Oh, my gosh, sponsor A left and sponsor B left,’ and for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors.’ And then a plethora of others have renewed or extended for a period of time.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

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NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler wants to shed the bridesmaid role

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Elliott Sadler is the Mark Martin of the Xfinity Series, according to NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty.

“He’s been so close … so often. He’s almost like the Mark Martin of this series. Mark finished second so many times in the (Cup) championship.”

Martin finished second in the Cup standings five times without winning a championship. Sadler has finished second four times in the Xfinity Series and has not been worse than sixth since rejoining it fulltime in 2011.

Sadler knows the burning question is how he can shed the bridesmaid role. He also has a firm grip on what that is going to take.

“Justin (Allgaier) and Christopher (Bell) have pretty much told us you’re gonna have to win to advance,” Sadler told Marty Snider at Tuesday’s Xfinity Media Day. “They have been extremely fast – especially here lately. They’ve got nine wins between them.”

And with those nine wins, the playoff bonus points that ease their way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To join them in Miami, Sadler has to keep from getting swept into the temptation to make something happen that the handling of the car will not support.

“As a driver, you’ve got to understand not to get too high and not to get too low – to try and stay even tempered because the intensity is definitely ramped up and you can get yourself in trouble here real quick and the next thing you know you’re digging yourself out of a hole,” Sadler said.

Petty agrees. While Sadler’s lack of a championship does not detract from his career any more than it did Martin’s, earning that elusive honor is going to be tough for the very reasons Sadler identified.

“He’s probably mentally in a better place this year, but he’s going up against a couple of guys in Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier … that he believes are already in Homestead,” Petty said. “He’s going up against guys that are having career years.”

For more, watch the video above.

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Friday 5: Time for NASCAR to schedule one-day shows

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LAS VEGAS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed NASCAR this week what the sport’s future could and should be.

Two series racing on one weekday. No practice. No qualifying. Just racing.

As NASCAR looks to make its schedule more dynamic, the idea of one-day shows for Cup has been discussed.

Those talks should go further.

Run the Xfinity Series on a weekday and the Cup Series that night in prime time.

Fans want racing. Give them back-to-back events. Don’t waste time with practice or qualifying. Set the lineup based on points and go.

“I think that’s the kind of open-mindedness that we need to see more of in NASCAR, honestly,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports on Thursday of the idea. “I know that I’ve been in some meetings with TV partners and NASCAR trying to work on weekday races, especially during the summer. Hopefully it’s on the horizon, sooner than later.”

Fans saw a doubleheader Monday at Indy after rain washed out both the Xfinity and Cup races that weekend.

Such a schedule could work for one race, maybe two a season. This isn’t about making the entire schedule one-day shows, but the approach would compress the schedule. That, along with limiting most tracks to one Cup event per season, could put the season finale in September instead of November.

Kevin Harvick, who has talked often about the need for bold ideas with scheduling, told NBC Sports that the key to such a one-day schedule is that “you have to protect the integrity of the racing.” 

But he says one-day shows could be possible.

The biggest challenge could come from track operators, who likely will raise concerns that a one-day event could reduce how many people camp and attend the event.

As NASCAR looks to race on a weeknight, limit how many days teams are at the track and alter the length of the schedule, the overriding question must be what’s best for the sport. In some cases, track operators might lose out to what’s best for the sport. In other cases, maybe it’s the drivers or teams.

To not do anything is the wrong approach. Frankly, that’s not a tactic NASCAR is taking, but words eventually need to be turned into actions.

Harvick suggests more dramatic measures.

He notes that the most talked about race this season is one that hasn’t taken place yet.

The debut of Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval later this month has had those in the industry and elsewhere talking. Chaos, conflict and crashes are common themes from drivers, leery of the race that ends the first round of the playoffs.

“That really is something that everybody sees as unique,” Harvick said. “We need more unique events. You need a story before the story happens.”

He says more can be done with the schedule to create similar stories.

“Why shouldn’t Darlington have a playoff race once in a while?” Harvick said. “Why shouldn’t Bristol have a playoff race once in a while? Why is the championship race in Homestead every year? That’s for us? I don’t think so.

“I think it would be better to rotate (the title race) around. I think coming to Vegas for the first race of the playoffs is great. Not that Chicago was a bad spot to start it (but) starting there every year gets stale. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”

That means new venues, date changes and other ideas. That also should include one-day shows in the summer that have the Xfinity and Cup Series race back-to-back.

“I think the way the world is today and … the ask of the fans, the expense of things, it’s a valid option,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said of the notion. “When you look back to the late ‘90s the way fans consumed television and their avid love of our sport and the love of the automobile, all of that, they’d want a seven-day festival for a race.

“It’s just times have changed. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. Times have changed.”

The 2019 schedule is set, but 2020 can be a time for the sport to move forward.

2. A tiresome trend

Many drivers talked Thursday at NASCAR Playoff Media Day about needing to avoid mistakes to advance in the Cup playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whether NASCAR is calling tire violations more closely on pit road to set a tone or teams are trying to push things, such penalties are up dramatically the past two weeks.

NASCAR called a total of 11 penalties for tire violations the past two weeks at Indianapolis (seven such penalties) and Darlington (four).

The 11 penalties for tire violations are more than NASCAR called the previous seven races combined (10 such penalties called).

In the last nine races, Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew has been penalized for three tire violations, more than any other team. Next is Austin Dillon’s pit crew, which has been called for two such violations in that time.

3. Playoff wedding

It’s one thing for drivers to be engaged during the season but married — and during the playoffs?

No.

At least until this season.

Kyle Larson and fiancee Katelyn Sweet are scheduled to marry Sept. 26 — four days before the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, which will determine what four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs.

Why that date?

“Katelyn wants a warm wedding, and I race during the offseason so I didn’t want to mess up my offseason plans,” Larson said Thursday. “It happened to work out that we can do it right before the Roval there. So, it’s coming fast, and I am ready to get it done.”

I have kind of let her handle most of (the planning) and I will be there for the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and hopefully we don’t practice on Thursday. Because that will be rough.”

Cup teams will not practice that Thursday, so Larson will be OK.

4. Fond memories

Rockingham Speedway, which hosted NASCAR races from 1965-2004, was recently sold and the investors want to bring racing back to the 1-mile track at some point.

Jamie McMurray, who has been mum about his future with Chip Ganassi Racing, won the final four Xfinity races there.

McMurray was recently asked about the track and recalled not those wins but a moment with his fellow drivers.

Rockingham used to be the host of the pit crew competition. Drivers left from the backstretch pits and come down the frontstretch pit road for their stop. While they waited for the event to begin, they hung out along the backstretch pits.

“My memory of Rockingham is sitting on the backstretch (pit wall),” McMurray said. “I was sitting back there and Mark Martin, who had won I don’t know how many races at Rockingham (two Cup and 11 Xfinity races in his career). Mark is notorious for never giving himself credit and telling you how great you are. I remember Mark going: “You’re the guy now; you’re the man. I wish I could have done that.’ Like yeah, right, this is Mark Martin.

“That’s one of my favorite memories, my rookie year (in Cup) sitting back there with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. I think Sterling (Marlin) might have been in that, so there (were) good stories being told.’’

5. Looking to keep a streak alive 

Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one race on a 1.5-mile track 24 consecutive seasons. That streak is in jeopardy this year. Hendrick’s only win so far this season came on the road course at Watkins Glen with Chase Elliott.

Four races remain this year on 1.5-mile tracks: Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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Ryan: Some random thoughts while waiting to race after the rain

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Wet weather in Indianapolis has precluded any Cup or Xfinity cars getting on track at the Brickyard this weekend. So in lieu of any Indianapolis Motor Speedway activity, let’s revisit a few postrace musings from the Southern 500:

If there’s something we’ve learned about Brad Keselowski in a dynamic decade as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken, plucky and cerebral stars, it’s that he rarely ducks a question.

Any question.

His feelings about the most divisive of national controversies?

Keselowski will weigh in firmly but gracefully (and admittedly against the advice of his PR counsel).

Opinions on head injuries that run counter to the advice of board-certified neurologists?

Keselowski will strike a recalcitrant tone and remain consistent year after year.

Big-picture solutions on what’s ailing NASCAR and how to fix it?

Keselowski devoted his 2012 championship address to tackling them and then was reprimanded for sharing his plan of attack.

But there was one question in 2018 that had the Team Penske driver intentionally and uncharacteristically shying away from microphones this season. And in the context of the emotionally and politically charged topics that Keselowski has embraced in the past, it seemed rather benign.

When are you going to win again?

“I’ve been dodging you so I don’t have to answer it,” he told ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass after Sunday’s victory in the Southern 500, his first since October 2017. Keselowski admitted it had “weighed heavy” on his mind that he might have to face that question over the final 12 weeks of the season.

It was striking to hear from a star whose confidence and sense of place within NASCAR are typically immutable. But it was yet another reminder of how fleeting success is and how fickle an impact it has even on someone as self-assured as NASCAR’s first Millennial champion, who now is in his ninth full season in the Cup Series.

Idealism and worldliness haven’t left the 34-year-old, but Keselowski now also speaks with the wizened perspective of a realist veteran in the vein of Mark Martin’s mindfulness that every win could be the last.

“Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee,” Keselowski said. “What’s so difficult about those moments is early in my career, 2010, we didn’t have cars anywhere close to being able to win, and then 2011 came, at least the second half of the year, and we did have cars capable of winning.

“And I started to kind of make a name for myself, and there’s almost a point in time where you take that for granted, and then you start to see that slip away, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, this could be it, right?’  I might not ever get those opportunities again.”

“Moments like today are just so refreshing.  They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well.”

That was one of many illustrative postrace analogies from Keselowski, reminding us of the unique candor that’s been missing since removing himself from the NASCAR industry conversation for much of the past year during his victory lane absence.

He compared the agonizing confirmation of learning he’d averted a speeding penalty on his fateful pit stop with waiting “on a death sentence.” The moves he perfected in Saturday’s Xfinity race that went unused Sunday were like being ready for a dance floor anthem that never was played.

NASCAR is a better place when regularly graced by his distinctive viewpoints, but those shared at Darlington also had a new bent.

The typically genuine introspection was tinged with a greater world-weariness from Keselowski, who has had a child, gotten married and settled fully into family life since the 2011-14 era when he regularly clashed with the NASCAR establishment.

He was less brash and more humble late Sunday night after a Darlington sweep. But just as sharply insightful when describing the downsides of a 29-race winless streak.

“When you’re not fast, life sucks as a race car driver,” he said. “You’re just literally going around beating your head up against a wall, hoping that, like I said, each weekend that it’ll show up, that the engineering will show up and the team will show up and that everything will happen just perfect, because you have to.

“And that you won’t screw it up as a driver when they do show up.”

The few times that his No. 2 Ford has been in position to win this year, Keselowski hasn’t capitalized, and it has seemed a result of pressing and being less focused.

Arguably the best racer in the draft at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski crashed out of the season’s first three restrictor-plate races for the first time in his career.

“I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating,” he said. “And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.”

He does know the questions about it will subside.

At least for now.


Kyle Larson’s classy postrace interviews at Darlington – in which he avoided laying any blame with his team for the final pit stop that cost his dominant car the win – were more signs of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s growth as a leader.

Though bluntness is among his most appealing traits, Larson clearly has embraced his role as the focal point for the No. 42 Chevrolet. He isn’t much of a car guy, so there are inherent limits to how much Larson authentically can be immersed in the team’s inner workings. But he is doing and saying all the right things to instill faith without compromising his honesty.

Aside from how he graciously handled Darlington, other recent indicators of the maturation have been:

  • His emphasis on the less visible gains made by his team even while addressing why Ganassi has lagged behind other Chevrolets over the past two months (the trademark candor emerged after his third at Darlington, noting “I feel like we’ve kind of been stale up until this weekend”).
  • An apology to crew chief Chad Johnston for being “in a bad mood” on the team radio during the first half of his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway (where he started from the pole but lacked speed and had “an off race”).
  • His sensitivity to how his dirt-racing schedule is viewed, which ostensibly is through the eyes of NASCAR fans but just as importantly could be how his team accepts his moonlighting.

Larson, 26, is always a joy to watch behind the wheel, but his emergence as the rock of the team (though still mild-mannered and reserved in nature) also has been beguiling.


The past two Cup races have shown the critical importance of lane sensitivity for leaders on restarts.

On every restart of the Southern 500, the first-place car took the inside and retained the position. The story was the same at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the outside line was heavily preferred.

Of the last six restarts on the 0.533-mile oval, winner Kurt Busch was the only driver who started on the inside in second and took the lead. No one else even held the position. Between Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer, the other five drivers who restarted in second lost an average of 2.6 spots when the green flag dropped.

The restart disparity is magnified most at Bristol and Martinsville Speedway. But Larson’s plight at Darlington (essentially losing the race despite a dominant car because he lost the race out of the pits by roughly 6 inches to Keselowski) underscores how arbitrary the positioning on restarts also can be in deciding outcomes. If you are in the wrong lane, it often doesn’t matter how strong your car is.

Barring special circumstances, Kevin Harvick is done with Xfinity Series

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After making 346 starts and winning 47 times, last week’s Xfinity race at Darlington will be Kevin Harvick’s last in the series, the driver announced Tuesday on “Happy Hours,” his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show.

“For me (Darlington) will be the last scheduled Xfinity race that we put on the schedule,” Harvick said.

The decision was made in order to allow him to concentrate on his Cup car.

Harvick has pulled double duty five times this year, including February’s race at Atlanta where he scored his last win.

Harvick also ran at Texas, Michigan, Chicagoland and last week at Darlington.

“With the two-day schedules, my family and all of the things that came up this year just because of the way the schedules worked out … I just need to focus on my Cup car and the things that are happening there,” Harvick said.

“Just like this weekend. The practices were back-to-back. I needed to be in the Cup hauler with Rodney (Childers) and those guys making sure that my car was 100 percent dialed in between practices.”

While Harvick will not commit to a regular schedule, he left open the possibility that he might run a select number of races in the future.

“It’s not to say that I won’t run here or there if we have a sponsor, or someone who needs something, or there’s a new racetrack that’s intriguing. But for me, there’s no more planned Xfinity races,” Harvick said.

With 47 victories, Harvick is third on the all-time wins list behind Kyle Busch at 92 and Mark Martin with 49. Harvick’s first win came in his first full season in 2000 at Gateway International Speedway.

Harvick’s first start came near the end of the 1999 season at North Carolina Motor Speedway. He completed 34 laps and retired with an engine failure.

Last weekend at Darlington, Harvick was involved in an incident with Ross Chastain on Lap 111 at Darlington as the two battled for the lead. The damage to Harvick’s car was sufficient to cause him to retire in 29th.

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