Normally, people forget who finishes second in any championship event: the Super Bowl, World Series, or NBA Finals included. Elliott Sadler, coming off a season in which he finished second in the XFINITY Series point standings is trying to forget what could have been.
In Sadler’s first year with JR Motorsports, he arguably had the best performance of his 22-year NASCAR career. Punching a ticket into the inaugural Chase at Talladega Superspeedway in early May, the No. 1 team focused on improving throughout the whole season.
Sadler finished with three victories, triumphant at Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway to kick off the Chase. The No. 1 car had 14 top-five finishes and a career-high 29 top 10s, including a span of 16 consecutive races with a top 10 from early July to early November. The only trophy he didn’t walk away with was the championship, a seesaw battle that ultimately tilted Daniel Suarez’s way during a lackluster finale for the veteran.
But the year could still be termed a success. Coming off a lackluster 2015 season with Roush Fenway Racing in which Sadler had 17 top 10-finishes, the fewest since returning to the XFINITY Series on a full-time basis in 2011, he used one word to describe his renaissance with JR Motorsports – thankful.
“I met with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in his bus at Dover last fall and he told me what he was going to do,” Sadler told Frontstretch. “He was going to bring in Kevin [Meendering], first time crew chief and someone who never worked on an XFINITY Series car before. He had been the engineer on Dale’s Cup car and he said ‘listen to me, this guy just resurrected my career the last five years. He put me back into victory lane and he is going to do the same thing for you. Trust me and follow his lead.’”
Meendering did just that, Sadler willing to trust his bosses based on their past history together. Co-owners of JR Motorsports, Earnhardt and Kelly Earnhardt Miller have known Sadler since he debuted in the sport. The two drivers competed for the 1998 XFINITY Series title when Earnhardt won the championship and the Virginia native finished eighth.
The friendship has built over the years and Sadler believed what Earnhardt was telling him before making the jump to JR Motorsports. It led to his most wins in a single season since competing for Kevin Harvick, Inc. in 2012, when he also finished second in the championship standings.
Heading into Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sadler was confident it was his time to shine and edge his name into the NASCAR record book as a champion. Coming up short for the Earnhardts, an unexpected final road bump in 2016 was mentally draining.
“When you have to look your friend in the eye and feel like you disappointed them or let them down because you weren’t able to deliver the trophy to them like you really wanted to, it makes it tough,” he said. “It hurts not being a NASCAR champion to this point. I felt like honestly this season was the best I’ve been prepared physically and mentally that I’ve ever been for a race.”
Sadler and Meendering worked together for the first 32 races of 2016, excluding the season finale at Homestead. In the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway, two lug nuts were left loose, resulting in a one-race suspension for the crew chief.
Because of the first-year success with one another, Sadler trusts Meendering and believes that this could be a dynamic duo going forward.
“Kevin has 100 percent revived my career,” Sadler said. “I feel better today, running better, you train harder, study more and focus more when you feel like you have a chance each and every week. I picked up my end of the bargain as well, but I think having a really good crew chief and a good team has made me want to be a part of it.”
In the latter part of Sadler’s career, his motto has become to outwork the other guys, a shared slogan with seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. Each week, the Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated teammates will pump the other one up heading into the race weekend.
“He texts me words of wisdom, focus points and things to do,” Sadler said. “We’re both in the same boat age-wise, that we can still do what we can do off the track so we can stay a part of this sport as long as we want to.”
Sadler was voted the 2016 XFINITY Series Most Popular Driver, the fifth consecutive JR Motorsports driver to win the award. That popularity is what should keep him in the mix long-term, a positive personality sponsors flock to despite his age (41).
Heading into 2017, Sadler will return to pilot the No. 1 machine with Meendering on top of the pit box. JR Motorsports will field four full-time XFINITY Series cars, including Justin Allgaier, who also made the Championship 4 in 2016. The organization will field entries for Michael Annett and rookie William Byron, hoping to bring back a title to the Mooresville, N.C. race shop.
“I can’t wait,” Sadler said of 2017. “I think Byron is the star of the future. That dude is unbelievable with what he can do in a truck and I can’t wait to see him in one of our cars. Justin (Allgaier) and I have a lot of experience and we’re going to help him as much as we can. Four full-time XFINITY Series guys is good for us with the new rules. I think it was a good move by JR Motorsports because it gives us more opportunities to try to win a championship next year.”