Believe it or not, Elliott Sadler has not won an XFINITY race in two years. The site of that last victory is Talladega Superspeedway, where the NXS drivers will race this weekend. Sadler will be one of many drivers hoping to take advantage of the opportunity that restrictor plate racing brings for surprise winners. While it would not be a shock if Sadler wound up in the winner’s circle, regular visits to Victory Lane have eluded him for several years and with several different teams.
Since Sadler rejoined the XFINITY Series full time in 2011, most of his seasons have fallen into the “good but not great” description. Usually, Sadler has been able to post better results than most of his fellow NXS regulars. He has also done well to secure the loyalty of sponsor One Main Financial. However, his performance each year never seems to live up to the expectations of what fans think he should be able to accomplish. The result is that Sadler has raced for five different teams in six seasons, producing decent numbers everywhere he goes, but struggling to establish himself as a consistent winner.
Sadler’s most impressive XFINITY season was 2012. That was the year that Sadler joined Richard Childress Racing, after the veteran team owner absorbed the remnants of Kevin Harvick’s team. Sadler drove for Harvick the previous season, and, despite finishing second in the championship standings to Ricky Stenhouse Jr, failed to reach Victory Lane. He quickly found success with RCR, however, scoring two early-season wins at Phoenix and Bristol and taking control of the point lead. He picked up two more victories at Chicago and Iowa and, admittedly, got robbed of another one at Indianapolis when NASCAR deemed he had jumped the restart and black flagged him. Sadler once again battled Stenhouse Jr. for the championship, and it looked like the fight would go all the way to the last race of the year. Yet when Sadler got collected in a crash in the return trip to Phoenix, the points deficit was too much to overcome.
Sadler spent the next two seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He contended for the championship in both of those years but often got outpaced by Sprint Cup regulars and a few of his NXS competitors. While Sadler came close to victory on a few occasions, the win at Talladega was his only one in 66 starts with JGR.
In 2015, Sadler sought greener pastures with Roush Fenway Racing, but the move led to the worst of his post-Sprint Cup XFINITY seasons. The 2015 season saw Sadler fail to reach 20 top 10s or finish in the top 5 in points. He also led only 33 laps, the lowest total of any of his full-time NXS years. To be fair, his results remained consistently decent, and winning has proven to be a difficult task for all XFINITY regulars as of late. Yet there were too many races in which Sadler would languish in the back half of the top 10 or in the teens. While teammate Chris Buescher went on to win the championship, some fans wondered if Sadler’s window to earn a title of his own was beginning to close.
Fast forward to this season and Sadler has returned to the Chevy camp and is racing with JR Motorsports. It is fair to suggest that the promise of sponsorship and Sadler’s years of experience factored into him getting the ride. Yet his early results for the 2016 season indicate some improvement. Through eight races, Sadler needs only one more top 5 and ten more top 10s to equal the numbers he had last year. He is also with a team that has had some success in recent years. He essentially replaced Chase Elliott at JR Motorsports, and although the team has some new faces, like crew chief Kevin Meendering, it still receives support from Hendrick Motorsports and probably has some of the same people who won a championship with Elliott in 2014.
Most importantly, Sadler has once again shown the strength to run well on different tracks and get the most out of his equipment. Last weekend at Richmond, Sadler finished third but clearly did not have a third place car. The No. 1 team was in and out of the top 10 for most of the race, and Sadler was getting outrun by all three of his teammates as the laps wound down. Yet somehow, he got through the chaotic closing laps unscathed and moved back into second place in points on a day in which it looked like he would lose ground to the leaders. While running up front and leading laps remains a problem (he’s led only four laps this year), leading has been a problem for everyone not in a JGR Toyota.
The building blocks are in place for Sadler’s strong start to continue into a season-long resurgence. There is a still lot of work to be done before the Chase begins and the real championship fight commences. That work includes snapping a long winless streak by getting Sadler back to victory lane.
Yet if the first quarter of this season is any indication, the grass might be a little greener in Sadler’s latest home.
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