In the late 1990s, early 2000s, a young, brash babyface driver named Elliott Sadler was making his way up the rankings of the NASCAR national touring division, with the goal, reaching the top and winning championships.
Along the way, Sadler would often go to veteran drivers of the sport seeking advice. The likes of Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett gave the then young mid-20-year-old the help he was looking for, helping him to become one of NASCAR’s notable drivers.
Sadler’s first Cup Series start came in the 1998 Coca-Cola 600 for Diamond Ridge Motorsports, his Busch team at the time. The next season, Sadler made the move to Cup with the historic Wood Brothers organization. Sadler earned his first career Cup win (the only victory of the 2000s for the Stuart, Va. based operation) at Bristol in 2001. 15 months later, he announced he would be making the transition to Robert Yates Racing, aligning himself with Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion, at the time one of NASCAR’s most established stars.
Fast forward more than a decade, and after bouncing around in the XFINITY Series with the likes of Kevin Harvick Inc., Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, Sadler has found a home with JR Motorsports. He and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been friends for upwards of 20-plus years, and Sadler is grateful NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver gave him an opportunity in top-tier equipment.
“Whenever I feel like I have a question, I know I can reach out to him and he’s going to answer it,” Sadler told Frontstretch on what it’s like driving for Earnhardt. “He’s definitely given me a great opportunity to come over here and drive for them, and I think 65 percent of the races that I’ve driven for him, I’ve been leading the points. That’s pretty awesome and I think that’s something he is proud of and I’m definitely proud of.”
Finishing third at Michigan International Speedway, Sadler recaptured the championship lead after losing it to teammate Justin Allgaier one week prior, despite crossing the finish line fourth at Pocono Raceway. The No. 1 team, led by second-year crew chief Kevin Meendering, has led the points following 11 of the 13 races in 2017, and 29 of 46 in the two years the duo has been paired.
However, this season saw a new chapter of history at JRM. Earnhardt welcomed Michael Annett, who took a step back after competing full-time in the Cup Series for the past three seasons. William Byron also made the transition to Chevrolet and the XFINITY Series after winning seven Camping World Truck Series events for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016.
In steps Sadler with his veteran experience.
“I try to be the best leader as I can be and share as much information that I can and we will take it from there,” Sadler said. “Justin (Allgaier) has a lot of experience as well, and we feel its our responsibility to share as much information as we can with Michael (Annett) and William (Byron). If we continue to do that, it’s better for the whole company.”
This year is Sadler’s seventh full season back in the XFINITY Series since taking a step down after 12 full-time years in the Cup Series. In that time, many young drivers have come, conquered and moved on to the top division of NASCAR.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won a pair of XFINITY Series championships in 2011 and 2012 before taking over the No. 17 car from Matt Kenseth. Austin Dillon won the 2013 title before moving on to the Cup level, bringing back the famed No. 3 machine. In 2014, it was Chase Elliott‘s turn to celebrate at Homestead-Miami Speedway, before Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez each won championships in 2015 and 2016. Sadler on the other hand, has finished no worse than sixth, including three runner-up results, in the championship standings during that time span.
Call it the changing of the guard, quite possibly, but Sadler has grown to realize his role in the sport, and is happy being a mentor to younger drivers.
“I take a lot of phone calls during the week and I’m good with that because the way I look at it was when I first came on the scene Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Jeff Green and some of those guys that had been around a while really took their time and gave me a lot of information,” Sadler said. “I feel like I need to do the same thing.
“It’s a lot of the same guys every week. It’s not different drivers depending on what race track we’re going to.”
Sadler doesn’t let his mentoring get in the way of his desire to win. There was no better example than last weekend at Michigan when the 42-year-old played a strategy call to get a top-five finish. However, after Byron, his rookie teammate came home a career-high second in a thrilling photo finish to Denny Hamlin, the veteran went over to embrace the 19-year-old, not letting him hang his head.
“You still want to win,” he said. “When it comes down to competition, I’m trying to outrun you and you’re trying to outrun me and we understand that about each other. I think it’s very important to help younger guys that are coming into this sport that are asking for help and information. Everyone at this level can drive, it’s just mentally do they know what’s going to happen to their car during practice or during the race and that’s where I try to help them at.”
On the other hand, Sadler leans on younger drivers for advice when he needs it, especially Byron, who sits third in the championship standings, 72 markers behind the No. 1 team.
Sadler does not allow his plethora of years of experience lead to stubbornness. He’s like a sponge, and absorbs what his teammates feel with their cars, hoping it leads to even better results.
“I ask William (Byron) questions all the time. He’s probably the only young guy that I talk to because we’re teammates and William has a ton of speed all the time. ‘What do you do here? What do you do there?’ Maybe, he’s looking at it differently than what I am. I’m very open-minded.”
The XFINITY Series race is heading to its first stand alone event of 2017 at Iowa Speedway. In the past, Sadler has one victory at Iowa, but top-10 results in each of the 12 races he’s competed in. Put the safe money on the No. 1 team to perform well this weekend.