At 41-years-old, Elliott Sadler feels like he’s “back in school again.”
It’s not most ideal situation to find yourself in two days before the Xfinity Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The JR Motorsports driver enters the Ford EcoBoost 300 with a crew chief he’s never worked with before in Mike Bumgarner. It is a result of Kevin Meendering, Sadler’s crew chief through the first 32 races of the season, being suspended by NASCAR for a violation of its lug nut policy.
“We’ve had a really good week of preparation because it is a little bit different circumstances than what we’ve had the rest of the year,” Sadler said Thursday at Championship 4 Media Day. “We’ve had some extra meetings, make sure our language is right, make sure we know the strategies we want to apply not only during the race, but also qualifying and practice, because it’s the first time Mike and I are working together.”
Bumgarner has 22 years of NASCAR experience and joined JR Motorsport in 2013 after years at Hendrick Motorsports. He last crew chiefed in 2014 and has been the team’s race operations manager since then.
That role has Bumgarner working on Sadler’s No. 1 car and the No. 7 of Justin Allgaier during a usual race week. But this is the least usual week of the season for Sadler’s team.
“Bummy is the one guy in the shop that works on all of our cars, I mean, hands on, he physically knows what’s going on with our race cars every single week before we go to the racetrack,” Sadler said. “As far as working on the cars, knowing what they want, knowing what’s in them, he had the most experience.
“He and Kevin have known each other from the Hendrick days. He’s a big part of why our cars go fast, because of stuff he can do to them. He just seemed like the perfect fit for all of us to kind of stay on the same page, which way we’re going as far as communication, attitude, being together.”
Communication is key for Sadler, who has a very specific way of talking to Meendering on the radio during races.
“They have the same personality. Communication‑wise, they both got the same type of speech pattern and things like that,” said Sadler, who has three wins this season working with Meendering.
But as Bumgarner said Wednesday, he’ll be “leaning heavily” on Sadler, who has competed in NASCAR since 1995 and has yet to win a title.
“It’s all on me, my shoulders,” Sadler said. “I’m the quarterback, I’m the leader of the team. I know that Mike is going to feed off of me and follow my lead.”
If the unexpected game of follow the leader pays off, Sader could give JR Motorsports its second Xfinity title in three years.