NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: For Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray Shows There Can Be a Brighter Tomorrow

Elliott Sadler had the very definition of a hero-to-zero weekend: Winning the inaugural Pocono Truck race on Saturday, then sustaining what he described as “…probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had in a racecar,” in the Cup race on Sunday afternoon.

But then, such is the great sport of NASCAR. One day, you’re at the top of the mountain, doused in victory lane champers; the next, you’re plumbing the deep, dark depths of a crevasse, or an infield grass berm, if you prefer. But for a moment, another DNF in what’s become a difficult season on the Cup side became the least of Sadler’s or anyone’s concerns. Much, much more important was his release from the infield care center in timely fashion with no serious injuries. Given the intensity of the wreck he suffered – perhaps the worst at Pocono since Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park tangled back in 2002 – that, in itself, is wonderful news.

The reality is, with all the many safety enhancements of the previous few years, driving cars at 200 mph with 42 other like-minded speed freaks has never been safer, in so far as that’s not an oxymoron. Sadler’s fearsome crash did, however, serve as a reminder – should it really be needed – that motor racing is still an inherently dangerous activity.

And on the picturesque tricky triangle in Pennsylvania, we were shown that racecars can and inexorably will find the worst place possible to wreck. Yet, perhaps the weirdest part of the whole thing is that there isn’t one good camera angle on the incident – something I can imagine resulted in some fascinating “post-production” conversations in the inner sanctum of the self-styled World Wide Leader In Sports this past Monday morning. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that chat.

In a strange sort of way, the lack of footage will likely see this vicious smash relegated to the recesses of the collective NASCAR memory far sooner than perhaps it should be. It also begs the question, somewhat facetiously, as to whether it really happened if ESPN didn’t catch it? Like, if you will, the old philosophical question as to whether a tree makes a sound when it falls in a forest – if there is no one there to actually hear it.

But the one, small image the network did give us – packaged with a bit of “Zapruder” quality to it – was enough for us to realize just how hard the No. 19 rocketed into the wall. It was horrible to see the car’s mangled sheetmetal, knowing the engine wasn’t even left on it, then the pain writ large on Sadler’s face as he painfully, slowly extricated himself from his battered racecar. What happened next, as a noted motorsports fan and friend of mine flippantly observed, was Sadler wobbled, sat and eventually laid down on the track like he was a recalcitrant child. That in itself was strange enough, leaving one immediately concerned; but more chilling was seeing the overhead view of the medical personnel treating him as fuel spilled from the shell of his totaled Ford Fusion. For a minute, I won’t deny, I held my breath in fear.

Minutes later, we were all able to exhale a deep sigh of relief. The most important part of this story was Sadler was able to exit the infield care center under his own power, addressing the issue to the assembled media: “Yeah, I’m OK. I’m a little sore. The breath definitely got knocked out of me. It was probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had in a racecar, but I’ve got to thank all my guys back at home that put these things together. It knocked the engine out of it. I know it knocked the sway bar tube and the whole sway bar out of it, and the whole left-front wheel assembly, but I’m still in one piece, so it did its job. The way it hit the guardrail back there was pretty tough. It’s not the run we wanted to have with the U.S. Air Force car, but we’ll go get ’em next week.”

Now in his 13th year as a top-level NASCAR driver, Sadler has competed in a total of 414 Cup races (three wins), 126 Nationwide races (five wins) and eight Truck races (one win). His first Truck victory, in a Kevin Harvick Incorporated vehicle on Saturday afternoon was notable for a couple reasons. First, the Virginia native became just the 21st driver to win a race at all three of NASCAR’s top series and secondly, it was a Truck Series debut (in the grandest of all possible styles) for new sponsor and aptly named “Grand Touring Vodka.” Drinks all ’round, I guess.

And given Sadler’s overall situation – with a view to where he’ll be next year – the win was a timely fillip for a driver who has not exactly had the best of times of late. Last season, he had to resort to legal measures just to keep his seat and really, however you want to paint that particular issue, it’s not pretty. As Sadler said in early July with regard to his place in the RPM organization, “I don’t fit into their future plans. We haven’t talked about anything 2011 at all… me, as far as what they’re doing and what we’re doing. So we’re definitely going on our different ways, but we need to end up this season as strong as we can. I think it will help me try to find something, land something for next year, and I think it will help them land a driver that I think fits into what they’re trying to do in the future.”

Certainly, this wreck could be an awful reminder of that pending free agency, a low point in Sadler’s struggling Cup career. Is it time for him to turn his attention towards a lower series? For the answer, we turn to what a fellow veteran and friend Jamie McMurray has shown him this year.

Headed into the latter stages of the 2009 season, Roush Fenway Racing knew they had to adhere to the NASCAR mandate and contract to four teams; it was clear to even the casual observer that McMurray was the odd man out, the low kid on the totem pole. Eventually, he was picked up by EGR and old mentor Chip Ganassi, but even then Bass Pro Shops was reluctant to commit to a man perhaps more at home advertising hair products than fishing rods and the like. Yet eight months later, with a pair of wins in two marquee events – the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 – it looks like a genius decision for all involved. And, therefore, there’s no reason why Sadler can’t find a similar level of renaissance.

It’s now been 2,155 days since Sadler’s last Cup victory (Fontana, September 5, 2004) but he showed last Saturday, albeit at the Truck level, that he can get it done when it counts. Don’t forget, that wasn’t a rout; his veteran last lap move completely killed Kasey Kahne’s momentum and helped secure a celebrated victory. So, as the SPEED commentators pointed out, he still knows how to get it done when the battle for the race-winning trophy begins to heat up. And let’s not forget that had Mother Nature let loose with a raging downpour just one minute earlier in February 2009, we’d be talking about Elliott Sadler, Daytona 500 winner, not a man whose racing life is in serious peril.

So, as the amiable new father tends to what I am sure will be a stack of bruises this week, after his biggest wreck ever, I can’t help but feel that it will be the victory in the Truck Series that will have the greatest long-term effect and not the potentially deadly wreck in the Cup race. They say nice guys don’t finish first (a theory Double J completely disapproves, to be fair) but I, for one, feel sure the big man will find his footing after an extremely difficult couple of years. It’s going to take the right opportunity, but if found this man can show that, despite whispers to the contrary, he still has what it takes – just like on Saturday afternoon at Pocono.

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