Elliott Sadler put together his best race of the 2016 season on Saturday, winning the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway. The victory is Sadler’s second of the season and first ever at Darlington. Although Sadler officially made the decisive pass for the lead following a late restart, he still had to fend off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin during the closing laps.
Hamlin, who had dominated the middle portion of the race, took over second place on lap 131 of 147. Sadler initially maintained a lead of about one second over the No. 18, but Hamlin turned up the heat in the last five laps. With two laps to go, Sadler drifted high in turn two, allowing Hamlin to reach his back bumper. Suddenly, Sadler’s lead was gone.
Both drivers raced side by side into turn three. For a moment, it looked like Hamlin was going to complete the pass in the low groove. A great run through turn four, however, launched Sadler ahead and allowed him to reach the white flag first. On the final lap, Sadler ran low through turn two, staying out of the marbles but allowing to Hamlin to close in once more. Yet another fast run through turns three and four sealed the win for Sadler.
“I’ve thrown one away before and almost threw this one away,” Sadler said. “But (this win) is very special. It’s cool to do it here on a throwback weekend with this paint scheme that’s meant so much to me.”
Sadler’s throwback paint scheme was a tribute to the No. 90 car that he and Dale Jarrett raced in the XFINITY Series in 2005. Robert Yates Racing fielded the car, and it was sponsored by CitiFinancial, the forerunner of Sadler’s current sponsor, OneMain Financial.
Sadler was grateful for his sponsor, which reversed a decision to leave NASCAR earlier this year, and Jarrett in victory lane.
“All the executives at OneMain Financial spoke about (how) they believe in this sport, they love the fans in this sport, they believe in it and they want to invest in it a couple more years, and it meant the world to me.
“I met Dale Jarrett here in 1996, and he was practicing for the Winston Million,” Sadler continued. “And he took time to teach a little
kid from Virginia how to get around this racetrack, and that’s why his name’s on the other side (of the car). He’s meant a lot to me (and) to my career, not only as a racecar driver but as a man.”
Sadler was also quick to dedicate his victory to team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sitting out the remainder of the NASCAR season while recovering from concussion-like symptoms.
“This is for Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Sadler said. “My owner has given me one heck of an opportunity this year.”
Sadler has indeed made the most of that opportunity. He led a race-high 75 laps and continues to lead the season-long points standings, and the victory at Darlington gives him sole possession of second on the Chase grid with two races to go. Erik Jones (three wins) and Daniel Suarez (one win) are the only other NXS regulars to post victories this season. However, six other drivers are officially locked into the Chase on points: Justin Allgaier, Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan, Brennan Poole, Brandon Jones, and Darrell Wallace Jr.
Suarez was nearly the one who had a late-race duel with Sadler instead of Hamlin. After quietly running in the top ten for most of the day, Suarez raced toward the front of the field during the last green flag run. With 20 laps to go, Suarez caught Sadler and was looking for a way to pass the No. 1. In doing so, Suarez slapped the wall on lap 129. He was able to continue, but the damage seemed to hurt the No. 19 car’s speed. The resulting third-place finish still capped off a strong day for Suarez.
After a rough few weeks, Darlington brought no relief for Ross Chastain. While running mid-pack, he got the worst of a multi-car incident on lap 103, smashing into the back of Carl Long. The crash ended Chastain’s day and left him 29th. He is currently 15th in points, 48 markers below the Chase cut line.
Kevin Harvick has never won an XFINITY race at Darlington, and he did not get much of a chance to compete on Saturday. On lap 33, Harvick took his No. 88 car to pit road, reporting a motor problem.
“I think they said it broke a crankshaft,” Harvick said. “It was sudden. Never had any smoke or anything, just locked up.”
The engine failure ended Harvick’s day with a 35th place finish.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
Just like last weekend at Road America, Jeremy Clements found himself in the top ten late in the race. Unlike last week, Clements avoided fading late and hung on to finish eighth. He must either win or make up 26 points in the next two weeks to reach the Chase.
Ryan Preece will not be a Chaser without a win, but he did earn another impressive finish. His tenth-place result is his first ever NXS top ten.
Double Duty Interlopers
Despite struggling on restarts, Hamlin had one of the best cars all day. He led for the first time on lap 48, taking the lead from Sadler. After getting passed by Kyle Larson on lap 91, Hamlin inherited the lead under caution when several drivers in front of him pitted. However, he was unable to hold the lead on the following restart, losing the top spot to Sadler.
“I was plowing tight that last run,” Hamlin said. “(I) wasn’t good on restarts. All that means we finished second.”
Kyle Larson was another potential winner who ended the afternoon with a top five, but he had an eventful time getting there. Larson started 13th and worked his way through the field, overtaking Hamlin for the top spot.
On lap 103, Larson attempted to get to pit road for a green flag stop, but lost control of his No. 42 Chevy and spun toward the pit entrance. Larson did not hit anything, and the race might have stayed green, but when Ryan Blaney also slowed to make a pit stop, he got hit from behind by Carl Long, who then got hit by Chastain. That incident brought out the third caution flag and likely saved Larson a lot of time.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Blaney actually took over as the race leader. However, the back end of his No. 22 had
sustained significant damage, forcing Blaney to make an extended pit stop and turning the lead over to Hamlin. Fortunately for Larson and Blaney, both drivers rebounded nicely. Larson finished fourth, while Blaney came home seventh.
The other Sprint Cup regulars were not so lucky. Paul Menard started on the pole and led the opening laps, but a cut tire with a handful of laps to go spoiled his top ten run. He would finish 20th. Of course, that was better than Matt DiBenedetto, who finished last after completing only three laps.
The Final Word
Sadler has come very close to winning at Darlington a number of times, especially since his return to the XFINITY Series in 2011. But despite fast cars, victory lane at the track too tough to tame always seemed to be just beyond his reach. Saturday, Sadler was finally able to erase the frustration of missing out on the trophy at Darlington in his 32nd NASCAR start at the track.
Sadler’s greatest strength in 2016 has been his consistency. No one would dispute that Sadler has had a good season, but it has been a long time since he has led such a high percentage of a single race. By pacing the field for 75 of 147 laps, Sadler led 51% of Saturday’s race. In 319 previous NXS starts, the only other time that Sadler led over half of one race was at Nazareth Speedway in 1997.
Does this victory make Sadler the championship favorite? Ultimately, it is debatable, because the speed that Suarez and Erik Jones have shown all year is hard to ignore. Yet if nothing else, Saturday’s victory should give the No. 1 team a huge momentum boost. And who knows, Sadler is the only driver on track to make the postseason who has competed for a championship under a Chase format before. The “little kid from Virginia” is not a kid anymore, and he may have a few tricks up his sleeve to help him reach the big prize.
The XFINITY Series will run its last short track race of the season on Friday, September 9th at Richmond International Raceway in the Virginia 529 College Savings 250. Race coverage begins at 7:30 PM Eastern on NBCSN.
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