Elliott Sadler had a very happy birthday on Saturday. After going winless in the XFINITY Series for the last two years, Sadler claimed a victory at Talladega Superspeedway in the Sparks Energy 300. It is Sadler’s second NXS win at Talladega, one he earned after making two impressive saves on the final lap and hanging on to the lead just long enough before a caution ended the race after a big crash in the tri-oval.
“People don’t know how hard it is to win these races,” Sadler said in victory lane. “It’s very emotional; Dale Jr. gave me a great opportunity, I’ve got one heck of a race team.”
Although Sadler started ninth and stayed near the front of the pack for most of the afternoon, much of the attention went to the drivers who frequently challenged each other for the lead, especially Joey Logano.
Logano, a Sprint Cup regular, had quite the adventurous day, driving through the field twice after having to make extended repairs on pit road. The first repair came under caution on lap 25 when the No. 22 crew fixed damage on the car’s left front fender. During another caution on lap 88, NASCAR called Logano to pit road so that his team could repair a loose roof rail. Neither setback, however, kept Logano out of the top ten for long. He completed his final charge to the lead on lap 100 of 113, passing Austin Dillon.
With ten laps to go, a great battle for the lead began to shape up between Logano and XFINITY regular Brennan Poole. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR threw a caution for debris located just past the start/finish line, and declared Poole the leader. Logano took the lead back following a restart on lap 109, but the caution came out two laps later when Jeb Burton and Erik Jones collided on the frontstretch. That set up an overtime finish. Logano took the inside on the restart, followed by Sadler and his JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier. Poole lined up first on the outside lane, with Jeremy Clements and Dillon behind him.
Logano and Sadler pulled ahead on the bottom line, taking the white flag first and second. Allgaier, fighting Poole for third, attempted to push Sadler forward on the backstretch, but instead got his teammate loose and knocked the No. 1 car on to the apron. Sadler somehow maintained enough momentum to stay ahead of Allgaier and surged past Poole in turn 3. Once again, Logano and Sadler edged ahead on the last lap as the field approached the tri-oval for the final time. Seconds later, chaos erupted.
Sadler got a run on Logano and tried to pass the No. 22 high. Logano threw a block on Sadler, but grazed the No. 1’s front bumper in the process. As Logano spun sideways, Sadler dived low. The two made contact again, sending Logano head-on into the wall and Sadler toward the infield. As the melee unfolded behind him, Sadler kept his car straight and kept rolling, but got beat to the finish line by Poole, Allgaier, and Clements.
“I tried to go to the outside of Joey; he made a great block. I went back to the inside and just held it straight… I felt like it was one of the best saves I ever made, through the grass to keep it straight.”
Poole, a rookie driving for Chip Ganassi, appeared to have won his first race. NASCAR, though, had thrown a caution just before anyone reached the finish line, freezing the field and ending the race at the time the caution was displayed. After several minutes of reviewing video, NASCAR determined that Sadler held the lead at the moment of caution, making him the winner. The rest of the top five was Allgaier, Poole, Clements, and Brendan Gaughan.
It was a tough way to lose a race for Poole, but the Texas native took the loss in stride.
“I thought we were way to the good, but (that’s) just how it is,” Poole said. “But congrats to Elliott, he’s a former late-model stock guy like myself, so cool to see him win.
“We (were) just a little short,” Poole added. “Car was great, man, all day, we were right there.”
Sadler’s victory makes him the second driver to lock into the XFINITY Series Chase. He is also now tied for the points lead with Daniel Suarez, who finished seventh. Sadler and Suarez hold a 33 point lead over third place Ty Dillon. The younger Dillon brother got stuck deep in the field after overshooting his pit box on lap 76 and ultimately finished 20th.
Gaughan had to dig out of a hole early on after getting penalized for tandem drafting with Aric Almirola on lap 10. Gaughan got the free pass after a competition caution on lap 21 and fought his way back into contention. He got shuffled out of the lead draft with about 20 laps to go, but came back to score his first top five of the season. Matt Tifft was also impressive at Talladega, leading 21 laps and finishing eighth.
Erik Jones had his second rough superspeedway race of the 2016 season. Jones came sliding into his pit box on lap 75, forcing the No. 20 team to change four tires instead of two. Losing time in the pits put Jones at the back of the pack, where he was involved in Burton’s mishap. Jones would finish 22nd.
Part-time racer Chris Cockrum took a savage hit into the inside backstretch wall on lap 31. Cockrum got hit from behind at the exit of turn 2 by Garrett Smithley, spinning first into Joey Gase and then pounding the wall. Both drivers were okay after the incident, but neither returned to the race. Cockrum placed 37th and Gase 38th.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
In a season where almost nothing has gone right for Jeremy Clements, Talladega proved to be a good race for him. He led seven laps during a green flag pit stop cycle and found himself in the top ten late in the race. Clements teamed up with Poole during the closing laps and brought his No. 51 Chevy home in fourth. It was the first ever top five for Clements and his underfunded team. Meanwhile, Smithley, Justin Marks, Benny Gordon, and Ryan Preece all earned top 15 finishes.
Double Duty Interlopers
Austin Dillon led three times for a total of seven laps and had another strong race, but he was not in a position to make a potentially race-winning move when the checkered flag flew. He would finish sixth. Daytona winner Chase Elliott had to start the race from the rear of the field for missing driver introductions because he was fulfilling media obligations after winning the pole for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. He also led seven laps and finished ninth after an up and down race. Aric Almirola wound up one spot behind Elliott, fighting back to finish in the top ten after getting penalized early in the race for tandem drafting.
“We crashed pretty hard. It is just typical superspeedway racing in the XFINITY Series, racing for the win at the end. I know Elliott (Sadler) is a great speedway racer and he knew what he had to do to win the race and I knew what I had to do to try to keep him behind me. He went to make the move on the top and then he pulled it down to the bottom and got it underneath me and then I was a little late to the block. He was already there. Around I went and hit a bunch of other stuff along the way.” –Joey Logano after crashing on the final lap and finishing 27th.
“I knew we had a shot at it at the end there, it was just a matter of wanting to push but not being able to technically hook bumpers and push. I wanted that one really bad.” –Second place finisher Justin Allgaier
“Me and Elliott Sadler saved each other. He saved me from going into the outside wall, I saved him from going into the inside wall, he ends up in victory lane, I end up with a top five, so I’ll call that fair with a racecar in one piece and head to the next one.” –Fifth place finisher Brendan Gaughan
“We were coming through 1 and 2, and I guess I got a bump from behind exiting the corner, and the car just got light and spun around…When I hit, it knocked the air out of me, but with all the safety NASCAR has implemented, I am able to walk away, and I feel fine right now, but I’m sure in a day or two I’ll feel it.” –Chris Cockrum after his crash
The Final Word
Saturday’s race was highlighted by a thrilling, unpredictable, slightly confusing finish. Of course, that is how things often go at Talladega. Sadler was the beneficiary of a few split-second decisions by the drivers and the sanctioning body. It was the latest episode in Sadler’s season of steady top ten results, a season that has him looking much more like a championship contender than in recent years. The inaugural XFINITY Chase will no doubt turn the championship battle upside down, but right now, Sadler looks as prepared as anyone to face the highs and lows of the postseason.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s race was also a reminder of the awkwardness that NASCAR’s restrictor plate racing rules create. The sanctioning body still does not have a good way to realistically enforce the “no tandem drafting” rule, and it is very doubtful that it ever will.
Meanwhile, NASCAR is already dealing with questions about throwing a caution flag about two seconds before the race would have ended anyway. XFINITY Series director Wayne Auton explained after the race that there was enough concern about Logano’s crash that the sanctioning body had to err on the side of safety and needed drivers to lift off the gas as the approached the crash site.
The finish was another instance of NASCAR being put in a box by its own rules. If there is ever a dangerous situation on the track, then NASCAR has to act. Yet how realistic is it to expect drivers to back off the throttle if they are approaching the finish line in a tight pack? No driver wants to hurt another competitor, but with money and points on the line, a driver’s instinct is to get to the finish. It was too bad for Poole, who actually was the first car to cross the finish line and the presumed winner for a few minutes, but he handled the disappointment with class.
Indeed, split-second decisions defined this race. That is nothing new for Talladega, or auto racing.
The third Dash 4 Cash race will take place on Saturday, May 14th at Dover International Speedway. Coverage begins at 2PM Eastern on FOX.