A new season has brought yet another change for Elliott Sadler. The Virginia native has made the move to his third team in four years while racing full-time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Sadler’s previous team, seemed like the perfect fit for the three-time Sprint Cup Series winner. And why wouldn’t it be? Kyle Busch has been tearing apart the XFINITY Series since 2008, and Sadler – rightfully so – believed that would happen to him.
But following the swap from Richard Childress Racing, his highly anticipated tenure at Gibbs was quite mediocre. Earning one mere victory with Gibbs in 66 events, Sadler didn’t perform to expectations. Following a year of four victories with Childress, he joined the Toyota organization with plenty of hype and motivation to secure his first NASCAR championship. However, a lack of horsepower for the team, along with an inexperienced crew chief, put a limit on his success. During his two years with Gibbs, he earned 16 top 5s and 45 top 10s, but that wasn’t enough to put him higher than third in points.
The reduction in speed prevented Sadler from contending for wins, with the exception of the restrictor plate tracks, which has been a strength of his career ever since his 1997 debut at Daytona.
Entering 2015, Roush Fenway Racing, Sadler’s new team, offers the veteran a much-needed homecoming. Returning to the organization that helped catapult his Sprint Cup Series career (he started with the Wood Brothers, which then was partnered with Roush), he has the opportunity to be a team leader with youth surrounding him. Sadler, the soon-to-be 40-year-old, is set to lead its XFINITY Series efforts, which consists of more inexperienced drivers in Ryan Reed, Chris Buescher and rookie Darrell Wallace, Jr.
“They gave me my first opportunity in racing,” Sadler said on rejoining the Ford camp. “Being able to be back with Doug Yates and that Yates horsepower, to really get back with family that are all going for that common goal and pulling that string in the right direction and doing it together has been special for me. I can’t thank Jack enough and everyone from Roush Fenway Racing for giving me this opportunity.”
Though Roush struggled last year – both in the Cup Series and the XFINITY Series – it has restructured the organization to emerge as a championship contender in 2015. Mark McArdle, who formerly worked for Childress as the director of operations, is now with Roush as the engineering director. After successfully leading Childress back into contention, along with Furniture Row Racing, McArdle will help advance an engineering program that was lacking in 2014 without veteran feedback in the XFINITY Series. Along with McArdle’s hiring, the team has also brought in Kevin Kidd, who will be the Sprint Cup Series team manager.
The changes have injected Roush with a confidence boost entering the new season. After struggling in 2014 with one victory by Buescher in 2014, Sadler is expected to lead the four-car team back into championship contention. But what will truly help is that he has a crew chief in which he has confidence for the first time in over two years.
Phil Gould, who was his car chief at Childress, will lead Sadler’s No. 1 team in 2015. The fresh face should help the veteran get adjusted rather quickly this season. His chemistry with Chris Gayle was less than stellar, especially with the many disagreements they experienced with strategy. Sadler struggled to lead laps with Gayle being his team leader. Leading 298 laps over the course of two seasons, his 2012 total with Childress surpassed that with 366 laps led, which is what will be expected of him this year at Roush.
“We are working hard and going through some changes and the guys have really put their nose to the grindstone to make sure when we unload at Daytona we are as prepared as we can possibly be,” Sadler said earlier this year. “We can’t thank our partners from Ford enough for helping us with that and I am looking forward to a good season. We have a lot of youth and enthusiasm on this stage and everyone is ready to get going. We are looking forward to it.”
Along with the changes at Roush, Ford has also stepped up its game. With the addition of a new simulator system at the Ford Performance headquarters, which sits just down the road from the NASCAR Research and Development Center, teams can test new strategies and setups with the testing ban. Inside the performance center, Ford has a race-ready simulator that is a more advanced version of iRacing, which Buescher said should help improve the team in 2015.
For Sadler, this is arguably the most important season of his career. Yes, that has been said over and over again in the past, but this time, it’s for real. Why? Because this deal with Roush has potential to move him back into the Cup Series next year if OneMain Financial would be willing to do so. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is on the hot seat, and Roush could make a switch if they desire to do so. Sadler could make the jump back to the Cup Series on a full-time basis, which he continues to say is what he would like to do, or he can split a fourth car with some of the younger drivers within the organization. Either way, there are no other front-running teams that will hire him in the XFINITY Series – at least for now.
Time is at the essence for the new face of Roush Fenway Racing. It is in his hands, and with a few victories, Sadler could overtake Chase Elliott and win the 2015 championship.
Where’d they go?
There are a few missing names at Daytona International Speedway for the Alert Today Florida 300.
- Mike Bliss was originally scheduled to run the entire season for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 19 Toyota, but he is not racing in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona. Scott Lagasse, Jr. will pilot that car this weekend. TriStar Motorsports had no comment on the one-race replacement at press time. Bliss will likely be declaring for points in this division, despite the fact he is running in the Sprint Cup Series for the majority of the year.
- Robert Richardson, Jr.‘s R3 Motorsports has closed its doors. The team’s shop is being leased, and though he has said he is not “retiring,” it appears he won’t be racing unless a sponsor approaches him. Throughout his career, the former football player ran eight Cup Series events and brought his family-run team to the sport’s top division at one point. In 129 career starts in the XFINITY Series, Richardson has one top-10 finish, which came at Daytona in 2013. This is the first time since 2007 that he will not run the season-opener in NASCAR’s second-tier division.
- Kevin Lepage was scheduled to race the season-opener for DRG Motorsports. He tweeted this week that the team is working on solidifying funding for Atlanta, along with the rest of the season.
- James Buescher is not running the XFINITY Series race at Daytona this year. After RAB Racing lost Rheem to Richard Childress Racing, the former Camping World Truck Series champion was left without a ride, and now returns to that division with NTS Motorsports on a part-time basis. The former Daytona winner might not run any XFINITY Series events this year, and RAB Racing’s plans are unknown following Daytona. RAB will have Lagasse in the No. 29 car this weekend, along with making an attempt to race the Daytona 500 with Justin Marks.