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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Elliott Sadler on his many career firsts and his favorite ‘Fat Cat’

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This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of the race where Elliott Sadler‘s NASCAR career caught its second or maybe even its third wind, 21 years after it started.

On April 30, his 41st birthday, Sadler waited five minutes at the Talladega Superspeedway start-finish line to learn whether he or Brennan Poole had won the race. A wreck on the front stretch as the checkered flag waved resulted in a frozen field and confusion.

Elliott Sadler celebrates after his 2016 win at Talladega Superspeedway. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“One-hundred percent the longest I’ve ever had to wait, and man, it felt a lot longer than it was,” Sadler told NBC Sports this week. “I’m telling you, it felt like a year.”

That metaphorical year was on top of the two real years that had passed since Sadler’s last Xfinity Series win.

Eventually, Sadler got the good news. His win sent him to the top of the points standings. Heading back to Talladega this weekend, the JR Motorsports driver has led the points standings for 23 of the 32 races since his win.

“Somebody showed me a stat two weeks ago that (60) percent of the races I have ran for JR Motorsports we have been leading the points,” Sadler said. “That’s a crazy stat.”

In eight full-time seasons, Sadler has been a points runner-up in the Xfinity points three times, including last season.

“I’m definitely looking for redemption this year,” Sadler said. “Believe me, I don’t need any extra incentive to want to win a championship.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: You celebrated your birthday on Sunday. What did you do to celebrate?

Sadler: Me and my wife and a bunch of friends went out to dinner that night and went to lunch with our kids during the day and cooked breakfast here at home. But just spent a lot of time around here at the house. We had the race Saturday at Richmond so we were home for the weekend. So it was nice to do some stuff with my friends.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest birthday gift you’ve ever gotten?

Sadler: (Laughs) Man, I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of them in my lifetime. I would say the coolest birthday gift I’ve had was a car when I turned 16 years old. I’m not going to lie, in the state of Virginia when you turn 16 on your birthday, you get your driver’s license. My mom and dad, as long as I stayed on the honor roll, they bought me a car for my 16th birthday. I would say to this day that’s by far the coolest birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.

NBC Sports: That was going to be one of my other questions. What was your first car?

Sadler: It was a Mustang GT. I don’t know what the hell my parents were thinking, giving me something that fast. I won’t make that mistake with my kids. … It was a 1992 (model), black with gray stripes on it. It was beautiful with the new five-star wheels. That’s when they went from the honeycomb wheels to five-star. That thing would fly and it had a great radio system in it.

NBC Sports: You made your first Xfinity start at South Boston Speedway in 1995. What is your most vivid memory from that weekend?

Sadler: I have a couple different memories. It’s funny how your first weekend stands out. I can’t tell you what happened a year ago at a race. But your first race, I remember being fast in practice, then I qualified 15th, so I didn’t qualify good. I remember running third on the last lap, passing Elton Sawyer for second and we spun out. I spun completely out, did a 360 and finished (eighth). I finished (eighth) in my first race, but when I took the white flag I was passing a guy for second. That would have been neat if I had been able to pull that off in my first ever start and finish second. It was at my home track in front of my home town fans. Man, what a race, we had so much fun.

NBC Sports: Going forward a few years, your first Cup start is the 1998 Coca-Cola 600. What was that experience like for you?

Sadler: Well, I wanted to pick a really short race to start, you know. (laughs) … The biggest thing I remember about the Coca-Cola 600, I got very hungry during the race. I’m like, ‘this is a long race. I am hungry.’ The (Xfinity) races used to start at 12 o’clock every Saturday so I’d eat a little bit of breakfast, then I wouldn’t eat anymore until after the races were over with. Where the Coca-Cola 600, I got up and ate breakfast, and I was nervous and everything else and hanging out at the track and I didn’t eat anything. Halfway through the race I’m like, ‘man, I am starving.’ I remembered (thinking) ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do a better job of eating before these Cup races, they’re way longer.’

NBC Sports: I find it odd when I look at first Cup starts and it’s always like the Coke 600 or at Daytona or Talladega.

Sadler: Right, well there’s a reason for that. You got to look past that. Daytona and Talladega are really easy tracks for rookies to start at. Because it’s not really driving. It’s really if the car is fast at Daytona or Talladega, you’re going to make the race. It’s not really what you got to do. Charlotte, the reason people do it, teams don’t have to spend money on flying people somewhere, they don’t have to spend money on hotel rooms, cause you’re there at the race track and you’re there at Charlotte. So it’s a cheaper place to really start and kind of make a go at it, so that’s why I think you see those tracks stand out.

NBC Sports: You’ve won three Cup races, which one are you most proud of?

Sadler: I’m definitely most proud of Bristol (March 2001). Because that’s your first ever win and I won for the Wood Brothers at a place they had never won at before and it was close to home for them. So 100 percent that was the one I was most proud of, because it was the first one. It put you into a different group, man. It’s different when you win a Cup race compared to any other race. It put you into a whole new category and league. I was very proud to be able to make that happen.

NBC Sports: How did you celebrate that night?

Sadler: It’s not a long ride from Bristol, Tennessee, to Stewart, Virginia. Went back to Stewart that night and celebrated with everybody in the shop. Somebody had toilet papered Eddie and Len’s house there in Stewart and they had toilet papered the shop. It was like the whole town showed up for a Bar-B-Que that Sunday night. That was really neat for me to be a part of it at such a young age.

NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?

I think the very first one I’ve got pictures of and I can remember is the 1979 Daytona 500. We were there in the stands and our seats were off of Turn 4 and see back then, NASCAR when they threw the checkered flag they open the gates and let all the fans come in. We were walking around on the track and tacking pictures of the track and all of that stuff. That was a neat time.

NBC Sports: Do you remember the piece of merchandise that you saw your name or face on?

Sadler: Yes, when I drove Late Models in 1993 we went to the local, little photo shop here in town in Emporia and they made us a little post card and put my name and face on it. Man, it was something to be seen. It was neat to hand those out to people at the track and people could come get them, that was pretty cool to see.

Elliott Sadler celebrates atop “Fat Cat” at Darlington. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a race car?

Sadler: We name pretty much all of our race cars and I always have since I ran Late Models. … They’re all named for different reasons and a lot of them have back stories. So a name I tell you probably isn’t going to mean anything to you, but my favorite car that we have now at JR Motorsports that I run all the time now is called ‘Fat Cat.’ It has a long story about why it’s called ‘Fat Cat.’ … ‘Fat Cat’ is a friend of mine that’s pretty funny that helps us do some stuff with the race team. One of my engineers thought we should name one of the cars after him. So my engineer named the race car that and we kind of went with that and I won at Darlington for the first time out of the box last year, so that became one of my favorite cars.

NBC Sports: It’s been a few years since you were in a Cup race at Bristol. If you were to get the chance again, what would you choose for your intro song?

Sadler: (laughs) Oh man, that’s a really good question. I would have to say some big hair band music style. Like some Journey or Bon Jovi. Something in that limelight I think would be something I would choose. I like the rift of “Separate Ways” by Journey when it starts or “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner that’s got a bad beat to it. That’s what I would go with. Something old school from when I was coming along in school. That’s what I think I would like to have.

NBC Sports: Final question. On a day where you don’t have to be at the race track or the shop and your family is off doing something else. You’re by yourself, you have no obligations. What does Elliott Sadler do with his day?

Sadler: We’re going to go play some golf. Going to play some golf this time of year. During the winter time, it’s easy, I hunt. I hunt every single day. During the summer time this time of year I’m going to try and find some buddies and let’s go play a round of 18 somewhere on a golf course.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

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Ryan: Who’s right and who’s wrong in the Kyle Busch pit commitment conundrum? Everybody

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RICHMOND, Va. – Kyle Busch was absolutely correct.

The Joe Gibbs Racing justifiably was upset after a shot at victory was ripped away by a few guys staring at a high-definition monitor a few hundred feet above.

NASCAR was absolutely correct.

Busch broke the law by putting the right tires of his No. 18 Toyota on the pit lane commitment box.

Is it possible both NASCAR and Busch can be right despite seeming on opposite sides of a controversy Sunday?

Yes. Let’s explain by starting with this fact:

A cheap foul greatly affected the outcome Sunday at Richmond International Raceway.

Busch violated a rule that also caught five more drivers in the Toyota Owners 400, but none was more damaging.

In a twisted way, this is the rigid consistency and officiating sought by Busch, who complained last year about the capriciousness of NASCAR debris cautions. It’s a penalty in the same way as a pit crew member spotted going over the wall a millisecond too early. There is definitive video evidence.

But refereeing a sporting event isn’t quite the same as presiding over a court of law.

Officiating is an art of resisting the temptation to meddle in the natural course and rhythm. There are calls that basketball referees abstain from making as a game gets tougher while the clock grows shorter

Busch’s infraction wasn’t the equivalent of a touch foul – as NBCSN analyst Steve Letarte points out, putting a tire even an inch over the commitment box is akin to a player stepping on a boundary line. It can’t be overlooked in the way that officials can swallow their whistles in the closing minutes of a game when there is incidental contact.

That truly is a judgment call, or “Balls and strikes,” as Busch curtly referred to them Monday on national TV in a dismissively short interview that was quintessentially him.

However, by reducing the size of its voluminous rulebook, NASCAR could provide more dispensation and acknowledge it isn’t wise to disrupt the outcome with a game-changing call for something so ticky-tack as this.

The spirit of the commitment rule, spawned more than a decade ago in fuzzy origins traceable only to the rise of insanely competitive pit stops, is to dissuade drivers from aggressively diving into the pits. Such moves have put pit crews at risk and increased the likelihood of trailing cars in fender-benders.

Not the case with Busch, who fully was committed to making a pit stop when he barely grazed the orange box. Even race winner Joey Logano conceded the second-place car is in a difficult position when the leader cuts hard left.

“I was able to get down” under the box, Logano said. “But when you’re the trailing car, you’re looking at a rear spoiler, so you’re not 100 percent sure where that box is. It’s a tough situation.”

NASCAR’s enforcement of the rule is strictly by the letter with a passive-aggressive vengeance that would have made Bill Lumbergh proud.

“Hey, Kyle. What’s happening? Did you get the preseason memo on pit road entry? Yeah, we’re going to need you to enter with all FOUR tires below the box, umm kay? Thanks. And if you could avoid throwing a punch at Joey in victory lane, that would be great.”

Busch broke the rule.

Whether there should be such a rule is another discussion.

There has been leniency in this application before – drivers have been allowed to put their tires on the box, and a cone also had been used at some tracks prior to this season.

After some grumbling from several drivers (though this wasn’t a lobbying effort by the Cup Drivers Council), NASCAR made a well-intentioned attempt to streamline pit commitment and implemented uniform rules to avoid confusion from track to track.

It was a nice thought … but did the result – four tires below the orange box, ALWAYS — really need to be so rigid?

The overarching problem – from cars specs to pit procedures — is there are too many rules. More importantly, too many need as much simplifying and updating as the U.S. tax code.

NASCAR should continue taking a cue from golf, which is overhauling its Byzantine rules of play for 2019 into something that any duffer can comprehend. This was in the wake of some questionable applications of the law.

Sports isn’t always served so well by strict constructionism. Better to play the role of an Oliver Wendell Holmes than William Rehnquist.

There are repercussions for layering a rulebook with too many confounding codicils.

But regardless of that, there also are consequences for breaking the rules, too, as they currently are written.

Maybe that’s why Busch said only three words while marching past the scene of the crime Sunday on his way to the garage.

A few other observations the past weekend at Richmond International Raceway:

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NASCAR chairman Brian France’s impromptu appearance in the Richmond media center Sunday was notable if only because he didn’t address the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in the same manner as with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France with his son Luke.(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There are many reasons for that – Earnhardt was the last of the lot to announce, and it comes amidst a timely youth movement in Cup – but this also was another side of France, who brought 6-year-old son Luke to the dais.

The stock-car czar was more disarming and graciously thanked the news media for its coverage (in a stark departure from his state of the sport address last November when he was combative and fiery).

Outwardly, this means little for France, who is at 54 and in his 14th year of running the show. The third-generation leader won’t be changing his approach or style, but it might be indicative of a positive shift in how NASCAR tells its story in the future.

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When asked by NBCSports.com Sunday about the team sponsorship environment, France was sanguine about the prospects.

“It’s only April,” he said. “Those kind of decisions from Corporate America are typically made in August or September.

“Pick a year, we always see somebody — Richard Petty at one point — we always see at one point, why are they not doing well in that area for one reason or another. We’ve always had that. That’s not anything abnormal. It always gets worked out over time because the property works in a way for many companies that they can’t do in any other sport. They can’t own a team in any other sport as they can here.’”

Those are encouraging words, but they might bear weeks of repeating while awaiting significant movement on the outlook for the 2018 finances of many teams.

Stewart-Haas Racing still needs a long-term major backer for the No. 10 Ford of Danica Patrick, and the team has struggled to bring Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 to the level of sponsorship enjoyed by predecessor Tony Stewart.

At Hendrick Motorsports, Lowe’s is in a contract year with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (who has hinted he would like to drive a few more seasons), and Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 will need to replace Farmers Insurance and fill out some other holes for 2018.

Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi Racing is trying to keep Target with points leader Kyle Larson.

The calendar has flipped to May since France’s news conference – hopefully the Fortune 500 cash spigot soon flips on again, too.

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Denny Hamlin recently put the odds at 50-50 that Carl Edwards would return next season, but the odds seem less likely that his Cup comeback occurs at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018.

Though his contract status remains uncertain, there have been some concrete signs that Matt Kenseth, 45, wants to drive beyond this season. It still might be dependent on sewing up sponsorship (the recent signing of Circle K is encouraging), but Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing seem committed to working things out.

That still wouldn’t leave Edwards, 37, lacking for Cup opportunities if he tires of the farming life in Columbia, Missouri. If Hendrick decides on a big name and big salary (perhaps in hopes of snagging a big sponsor) to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., the affable and corporate friendly Edwards would make the most sense.

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A high-quality race for the second consecutive year in daytime at Richmond still drew a disappointing crowd. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted track president Dennis Bickmeier declaring a move back to a Saturday night slot is “on the table.”

It would be better if it weren’t.

Just for sheer diversity, it’s good to have annual day and night options at the 0.75-mile oval (a la Bristol Motor Speedway). But beyond that, how do RIR and parent company International Speedway Corp. walk away from the Sunday sunshine that produced four-wide racing on a short track?

From 1992-2008, Richmond sold every one of its seats for 33 consecutive races. The racing in the past two late April races has been as strong or stronger than it was then – and there are far fewer seats to sell now.

In a mother lode of race fans such as the Old Dominion, there’s a path forward to attracting the crowds that once flocked to Richmond in the spring. But it isn’t by reverting to Saturday night.