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: Martin Truex Jr., Cole Pearn belong together

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Tuesday’s announcement that Furniture Row Racing will close its doors at the end of the 2018 season started a game of musical chairs.

“This could be one of the craziest silly seasons we’ve had in a long time,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

That announcement also began the conversation of the likelihood that Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn will go to the same organization.

One of the most successful pairings in recent NASCAR history that has produced 17 wins and a championship could come to an end – or the sum of the parts might be too valuable for prospective owners to overlook.

“I think that you want to keep them together and I think they would like to stay together,” Earnhardt said. “They complement each other really well.

“A lot of people are going to think that Cole Pearn is maybe a bigger piece of that puzzle, but I would think that would be maybe underestimating Martin Truex Jr. and what he brings to the table as a driver.”

Pearn and Truex had success from the beginning. After finishing eighth in the 2015 Daytona 500 in their first race together, they scored 13 top 10s in the next 14 attempts, including Truex’s third career victory in the June 2015 Pocono race.

“One of the difficulties between drivers and crew chiefs is in finding out what a driver likes,” Earnhardt said. “And Cole knows those things. He can go, no matter where they go … he can go right in those organizations and build a car around Martin Truex Jr. that is going to be competitive right out of the gate.”

MORE: Furniture Row Racing’s demise leaves lingering questions 

In the past couple of days, multiple reports have circulated that Truex and Pearn could land at Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 19 that was vacated by Carl Edwards at the end of the 2016 season.

That would leave current driver Daniel Suarez’s future uncertain, but it would be a good fit for Truex and Pearn, according to Earnhardt.

“If they end up at Gibbs, they know (Pearn) pretty well, they know what they’re getting.” Earnhardt said.

When the Truex/Pearn domino falls, several more will follow.

“It’s going to be interesting where Martin ends up – where Cole ends up,” Earnhardt said. “But what dominoes is this going to knock down? We‘ll have to understand what that does mean for Daniel and beyond. Because we’re hearing rumblings in the garage of other driver changes.”

For more, watch the videos above.

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Brad Keselowski hopes Southern 500 win provides momentum for No. 2 team

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — The moment for Brad Keselowski was fantastic. Winning an event he considers among NASCAR’s crown jewels, snapping a 29-race winless streak, and doing it when he thought his team had a fifth- to 10th-place car entering the race made the night special.

But after winning Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Keselowski was cautious about what the win signified for his team with one race left until the playoffs begin.

“There’s no tracks like this in the playoffs,” Keselowski said after his 25th career Cup victory. “And winning is great, but there’s not a lot of carryover here, and we still have a lot to work on and improve to be considered a favorite for the playoffs.

“I’m hopeful today is the catalyst to get that work done because it shows that when we do hit it, we’re capable of executing at the level needed to bring home trophies.”

Maybe Keselowski’s team will be the one break a trend among winners late in the regular season, but the odds are against them.

Since eliminations were added to the playoff format in 2014, no driver who won in either of the final two regular-season races went on to make it to the championship race in Miami.

Twice such winners finished as high as fifth in the points, including Keselowski in 2014 after his Richmond win in what was the regular-season finale that year. Twice such winners finished 15th in the standings.

This has not been an easy season for Keselowski and his Penske team. He is on pace for his fewest top-five finishes in the past three seasons. He would need to score a top-10 finish in more than 80 percent of the remaining races to match his total from last season. His victory Sunday was the third top-10 result in the last eight races.

“It’s been really frustrating because we haven’t had the speed we’ve had over the last few seasons, and then the races where I feel like we’ve had the speed, I feel like I completely screwed them up,” Keselowski said of how this season has challenged him.

“I felt like before today that we had the speed to win Daytona and Talladega, and that’s probably about it, and I messed both those races up. I made one bad move in the draft, got cycled back, and then the wreck happened. And then at both the Daytonas, I feel like I made the wrong move, one where I just was too nice to someone and another when I just didn’t anticipate somebody else’s bad move. I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating. And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.

“And so you hope it’s every week. You enter every weekend thinking that. Then you get to the race and it’s not there, and you’re like, oh, what if I never get another car capable of winning again. 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.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted the team felt the pressure of not having won a points race this season before Sunday.

“It’s been a tough year,” Wolfe said. “Usually we’ve won a race by now, and you start to feel that season coming to an end, and yeah, we were kind of locked into the playoffs on points, but you know, most of us that I’m aware of on this team are here to win races. That’s why we do this. That’s why we get up every day and go to work is to win races, whether we’re in the playoffs or not. It’s all about winning races and contending for a championship.”

Keselowski said he hopes this win can lift his team heading into the playoffs.

“Moments like today are just so refreshing,” he said. “They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well, and this is a complete battery recharge for myself and for our team. It makes going to the racetrack fun knowing that you’ve won and you can win.”

A LOOK AT HOW DRIVERS WHO WON IN THE FINAL TWO RACES OF THE REGULAR SEASON FARED (SINCE ELIMINATIONS WERE ADDED TO THE PLAYOFFS IN 2014)

2014

Race 25: Atlanta – Kasey Kahne (finished 15th in points)

Race 26: Richmond – Brad Keselowski (5th)

2015

Race 25: Darlington – Carl Edwards (5th)

Race 26: Richmond – Matt Kenseth (15th)#

2016

Race 25: Darlington – Martin Truex Jr. (11th)

Race 26: Richmond – Denny Hamlin (6th)

2017

Race 25: Darlington – Denny Hamlin (6th)

Race 26: Richmond – Kyle Larson (8th)

# Suspended two playoff races for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville

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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 best at New Hampshire in last three seasons

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Flat tracks are among the most predictable in NASCAR and it seems that the shorter the distance, the more likely drivers are to find their rhythm. For the purpose of handicapping this week’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, the tracks used as a comparative for New Hampshire Motor Speedway include ISM Raceway (Phoenix), Richmond Raceway, and Martinsville Speedway.

Kyle Busch has been the master of those tracks in recent years with 12 top fives in his last 18 starts. He’s finished outside the top 10 only twice. In that same span, eight drivers have finished among the top 10 in more than half of their attempts. In terms of top 15s, 17 drivers have a better than .500 average since the beginning of 2016 and that allows fantasy players to narrow the field considerably.

1. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 2.83)
This week on NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman said that Roush Fenway Racing is using the No. 6 to test unproven parts and pieces in an effort to get Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the playoffs. If that is true, starting Kenseth comes with greater than average risk.

2. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 7.00 in two starts)
The short, flat tracks require rhythm to get around quickly. When a driver sweeps the top 10 on a minimally-banked course as rookie, it often means he is going to be strong there throughout his career. Suarez finished sixth in the spring and eighth in the fall at New Hampshire.

3. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 7.67)
It has been more than six years since Keselowski finished outside the top 15 at New Hampshire. If nothing goes wrong with his car, he is likely to extend that streak because all but three of his last 13 races ended inside the top 10 – including a victory in 2014.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 8.50)
Truex may still be looking for his first win at New Hampshire, but he has a better three-year average than Kevin Harvick or Busch. Along with Kenseth and Kyle Larson, he was one of three drivers last year to sweep the top five – and coming off a dominant win at Kentucky Speedway, he will challenge for the win this week in an effort to tie Harvick and Busch with five victories apiece.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.83)
Hamlin is one of the drivers that must be considered every time NASCAR goes to a flat track. At the height of his career, he would regularly string top fives together on this course type. Lately, he’s been a little more prone to scoring results in the high single digits and low-teens, but he’s still a good value if he fits the right niche on one’s roster.

6. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 10.03)
Busch’s three-year average is marred by an accident in 2015 that cost him 38 laps. If one removes that outlier from his results, he has a 4.33 average over the past five years with wins in spring 2015 and fall 2017. There is no sign that he will slow down this week and a top five is virtually assured.

7. Joey Logano (three-year average: 11.33)
From fall 2014 through spring 2016, Logano scored four consecutive top fives that included one win. In the three races since that streak ended, he has one top 10 and an 11th, but what really hurt his average was a broken transmission in this race last year.

8. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 11.67)
Harvick is another driver for whom his average can be deceiving. An accident midway through last year’s ISM Connect 300 and a mistake on fuel calculations in 2015 dropped him outside of the top 20 twice in the past three years, but his other four efforts have all been top fives with a victory in fall 2016.

9. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 12.00)
It is hard to tell because he is still finishing outside of the top 10, but Johnson is slowly improving. That is encouraging on a track like New Hampshire where the driver is a bigger part of the equation than he is on an unrestricted, intermediate speedway. Johnson could be a great dark horse in the Foxwoods 301.

10. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 13.17)
Larson has been hit or miss at New Hampshire, but when he finds the target, he is close to the bullseye. In his rookie season, Laron finished third and second. Last year, he swept the runner-up position and with a car that is now set up to run the lower groove, he should challenge for the win.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Busch and Truex won last year’s poles at New Hampshire and the odds are good one of the Big 3 will lead the field to green this week as well. Suarez could be a surprising dark horse, however, because Carl Edwards swept the pole in 2015 in this car and grabbed another in 2016.

Segment Winners: In the past two years, four drivers have dominated the segment wins on minimally-banked flat tracks one mile or less in length. Busch, Truex and Logano have four stage wins apiece. Keselowski has three. The tiebreaker goes to Busch, however, because he has earned 146 points on short, flat tracks compared to Keselowski’s 114.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Bump & Run: Our dream scenario for four-man race to Daytona checkers

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If you could bend time … regardless of eras, what four drivers would you like to see race for the win at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. David Pearson and Richard Petty. When I think of winners in magical moments at Daytona, those are the four names that initially come to mind. The next question would be: Does the race happen with or without restrictor plates?

Dustin Long: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Mario Andretti. All Daytona 500 winners and among the greats in racing.

Daniel McFadin: Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 2004, Dale Earnhardt Sr. from 1991, Bill Elliott from 1988 and Brad Keselowski from today. Give them some IROC cars from 1999 and let them loose for 25 laps.

Dan Beaver: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I’m not sure who would win, but it would certainly be spectacular.

What driver currently outside a playoff spot is one you think has the best chance to win Saturday’s race at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC)?

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. The two-time winner at Daytona always is a solid driver in plate races if he can avoid the wrecks and getting antsy in the draft.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman. He’s won at Daytona before and his teammate, Austin Dillon, won the Daytona 500 in February. Richard Childress Racing could make it two in a row there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Paul Menard could be a sleeper. He’s finished in the top six in his last three Daytona starts. He and AJ Allmendinger are the only drivers who have finished in the top 10 in the last three Daytona races.

Dan Beaver: The defending winner of this race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has a knack for plate racing and could get into the playoffs this week.

What’s the wildest finish you’ve witnessed?

Nate Ryan: The Oct. 7, 2012 race at Talladega Superspeedway. Tony Stewart attempted to throw a block off Turn 4 on the last lap, and 25 cars wrecked a few hundred yards from the finish line in a massive storm of dirt, sheet metal and smoke

Dustin Long: The finish to the 2007 Daytona 500. It has Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin side-by-side to the checkered flag, cars crashing behind them, Clint Bowyer crossing the finish line on his roof and fire coming from the engine.

Daniel McFadin: In person: Last fall’s Martinsville race. Sure, the Chase Elliott/Denny Hamlin incident was all anyone remembers. But don’t forget the massive pile-up on the frontstretch coming to the checkered flag. Even though it’s a short track, that was out of character for Martinsville. From home: I already used the 2012 Watkins Glen race for an answer a few weeks ago, so I’m going with the Xfinity Series here. The bizarre finish at Iowa in 2011 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost his engine hundreds of feet from the checkered flag and was rammed from behind by teammate Carl Edwards, which pushed him across the finish line for the win.

Dan Beaver: I have to go with one of the greatest finishes from earlier in the week. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch crashing as they crossed the finish line – and providing a photo finish in the process – has to be one of the best finishes ever.