The Chase has finally made it to the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series, and the title battle is shaking up quite a bit.
Instead of using the season-long format that has been around for decades, NASCAR opted to transition its lower divisions to a playoff system, similar to the way the one for the Sprint Cup Series since 2004. However, with eliminations coming into play for the Cup Series in 2014, NASCAR executives felt as if it were time to move this system to the other tiers within the sport.
The XFINITY Series now has a seven-race Chase to the championship, featuring a total of three rounds. Starting with 12 drivers, four are eliminated after each of the first two rounds before a four-driver battle for the title come Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
JR Motorsports regular Elliott Sadler is the lone driver in the field to have participated in the Chase, doing so in 2004 with Robert Yates Racing in the inaugural Chase for the Cup. Dominating the regular season, he had a 58-point advantage ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez before the standings were reset for the playoffs. After 27 races, the three-time winner in 2016 is set to earn career-highs in top 10s and at this rate — average finish.
As Sadler looks to earn his first NASCAR title since entering the sport in 1995, he is in prime position to do, earning a spot in the Round of 8 after his latest triumph at Kentucky Speedway.
Q: Why is Elliott Sadler so much stronger this year compared to the past few in the XFINITY Series? – Dylan R., Redding, Penn.
A: Sadler’s career as a whole has been quite the roller coaster. But rather than give a synopsis of his entire time in NASCAR, let’s evaluate how he’s done since he made the move to compete full-time in the XFINITY Series in 2011.
His first time with Chevrolet, split between Kevin Harvick, Inc. and Richard Childress Racing lasted two seasons, featuring title runs in both. However, after winning four contests in 2012, he left RCR for JGR.
In Sadler’s time with the Gibbs organization, he experienced a roller coaster ride similar to the likes of his time in the Cup Series — one year was a disappointment, but the other was quite strong. He was able to claim his lone victory with the team at Talladega in 2014, eventually earning a career-high 25 top 10s that season en route to a third-place finish in the standings.
However, Sadler never emerged as the title contender he expected to become at Gibbs, with teammate Kyle Busch dominating the XFINITY Series with a combined 19 wins in 2013 and 2014.
Sadler then set off for Roush Fenway Racing, which he called home for only one season. He ended up earning four top 5s and 17 top 10s in 2015, leading only 33 laps and having an average finish of 11.6, the worst in each category since he made the switch to the XFINITY Series.
While he struggled at Roush, he wasn’t alone. Teammates Ryan Reed and Darrell Wallace, Jr. each had their fair share of struggles in 2015, though, Chris Buescher excelled en route to Roush’s third XFINITY Series title in five years. But holding his own as the veteran presence within the organization, he continued to battle and finished the season sixth in the standings, four points ahead of Wallace.
When Sadler announced he was joining JR Motorsports, there were high expectations. His No. 1 car would be re-branded, soaked in a fresh paint scheme as he moved from the blue oval back to the bow tie. Since he competed with JRM in 2010 in four races, he was eager to work with NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., once again.
“I had high hopes coming in and Dale told me the team was making good gains toward the end of last year,” Sadler said prior to his Kentucky triumph. “He had a secret weapon coming in with [crew chief] Kevin Meendering coming in from the Cup side, who I think think has gelled really well with me and our race team. We knew the pieces were in place. We just had to execute, and so far, we’ve been able to do that.”
Sadler’s move to JRM began with six straight top 10s, with no finish worse than ninth at Atlanta — the second race of the year. But come Talladega, one of Sadler’s best tracks, he entered the 2.66-mile super speedway with hopes of a victory.
And a victory he earned.
Bringing the No. 1 Chevrolet home first in a wild finish, featuring a controversial call between rookie Brennan Poole and he, the division’s most experienced driver got rid of the egg shell in the win column for the first time in two years.
As the season has rolled on, Sadler’s chemistry with Meendering, a former engineer for Hendrick Motorsports, improved. The team has won two of the last four races and they are showing no signs of slowing down.
Sadler’s recent success comes after a summer featuring uncertainty. The team was told in early July that longtime sponsor OneMain Financial had opted to end its partnership with NASCAR after a handful of major executive changes within the company.
The move left Sadler searching for funding for 2017, and given that Hendrick Motorsports and JRM signed current Truck Series points leader William Byron to a deal to run a full-time XFINITY Series car for next season, the pressure was on for Sadler.
But that’s when Sadler stepped up to the plate and began running as strong as he did in 2012, when he finished runner-up in the standings with an average finish of 7.6.
Daytona in July was the last time Sadler finished outside of the top 10. Currently, he has 12 consecutive top 10s, the longest active streak in any of NASCAR’s top-tier divisions.
OneMain Financial agreed to a multi-year deal with Sadler and JRM in late August, which will put the company’s logos on his racecars at least through 2018, being the primary sponsor for 20 races next year.
“It means all of the difference in the world,” Sadler said. “It’s the first time in a long time that we know what our future is for the next 24 months, and that doesn’t always happen.
“It makes us able to focus on the job at hand and what we need to do now. We’re looking forward to executing and running well and being a part of this Chase. It definitely sets up for some security.”
In the midst of the uncertainty over the summer months, Sadler says he never contemplated retiring. And now, Sadler, 41, is in position to not only compete for a title this year, but for the next several seasons as well.
“Elliott and OneMain are integral pieces to the make-up of our company,” Kelley Earnhardt Miller, JR Motortsports’ general manager, said in an August press release. “Elliott’s talent speaks for itself, but what’s more, his experience and leadership is completely necessary for our younger guys. He brings a professionalism and charisma that permeates our entire organization, and I think he brings it to OneMain as well. I’m glad they have decided to come back with their sponsorship.”
As the team continues to show it has faith in the veteran, Sadler is flying on Cloud 9. With a secured spot in the Round of 8, he will attempt to become the oldest XFINITY Series champion since Jeff Green won the 2000 title at 37. If he does win the title, he will join Tommy Ellis (1988), Hall of Fame racer Jack Ingram (1982 and 1985) and Sam Ard (1983 and 1984) as the only drivers to win XFINITY Series championship at the age of 40 or above.
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