Sadler clinches regular season title, sets sights on Xfinity crown
Elliott Sadler still gets distraught about the one that got away.
In 2016, the first year of the Xfinity Series playoffs, Sadler led the standings for 14 weeks leading into the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
But after a rough outing at Phoenix the week prior compounded with the suspension of crew chief Kevin Meendering following a lug nut violation, Sadler ended up finishing third in the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead and lost the NXS title by two points to Daniel Suarez.
Sadler finished fifth in Friday night’s Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond Raceway. Following the 25th Xfinity race of the season, the 42-year-old Emporia, Va. native had accumulated a 95-point advantage over his JR Motorsports teammate William Byron and locked up the regular season championship in the process.
Critical bonus points
The first thing Sadler did was express his gratitude for the 15-playoff points that accompanied the title. He understands first-hand how critical those points will be down the stretch.
“Thank you for the 15 points,” Sadler said. “We were regular season champs last year and didn’t get too much for it. It makes it pretty nerve-wracking getting through the playoffs when everything is tightened up so. It was something we had on our mind and that we wanted to work hard for. My team has been very consistent this season and very fast. We’ve done very good with stage racing.
“To get 15 points, it not only gets us through the first round, but through multiple rounds, to Homestead. It means a lot to our team. That means we can go to Chicago and be aggressive and take some chances. We’re going to use it as a pre-season game — to use an NFL analogy — to kind of warm us up for Kentucky. But it feels good to do it here, Richmond of all places, with my family and friends here.”
Sadler has yet to win a race in 2017. He’s amassed 10 top fives and 18 top 10s as well as five bonus points prior to Richmond for his five stage wins this season. Among NXS regulars, Byron leads the NXS with three wins and 17 playoff points. Still, the No. 1 OneMain Financial team has concentrated on acquiring more speed in the cars — particularly to battle against the Toyotas. Sadler understands that to win the 2017 championship, he’ll almost certainly have to win the season finale.
And NASCAR has instituted stricter guidelines for full-time Cup participants to help even the field for Xfinity regulars. Cup drivers with five or more years of experience cannot race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“You can get there without winning,” Sadler said of the path to the final four. “But you have to win Homestead. I think we saw that last year — just the way the rules played out. Everybody has their best stuff by the time you get to Homestead, so you’re going to have to win that race .
“We have the tools to do it. And in a few races we were in position to win. We’re not feeling any pressure — as far as have to win tomorrow or have to win next week. But if we keep speed in the cars, keep running in the top five, we will get that win. But I definitely think you’re going to have to win Homestead if you want to be the champion. We know we have to win a race this year if we want to hold up the trophy at the end of the season.”
Preparation and keeping emotions in check
Sadler believes the key to excelling in playoffs is through preparation. Meendering, his current crew chief, sharpened his skills at Hendrick Motorsports as a team engineer for the Nos. 24 and 88 teams before he was promoted to crew chief. He understands what it takes to advance through the format.
“We’re in pretty good shape with lining up the right cars for the right tracks to make it all the way through Homestead,” Sadler said. “We don’t feel like we have to rush. We can run a really good car and then have time to prepare it and then run it again.
“Being in the position we’re in, where we have a really big lead in the points we can start focussing on our cars for the playoff season.”
Sadler has a huge advantage entering the playoffs. Along with his 15-bonus points, only he and his teammate Justin Allgaier have gone the distance to the Championship 4. If Sadler gleaned anything from his lost last season, it’s finding a way to execute and incorporate balance into his approach for Homestead.
“Last year I let my emotions get to high sometimes and too low sometimes during the season and during the playoffs,” Sadler said. “I learned the hard way, that it’s all about one race for me. It’s all about Homestead. It’s all about winning the championship.
“Last year not having my crew chief hurt my chances some because he and I are on the same page communication-wise. When he’s there, at the garage and can see the car, it makes a big difference.
“I do feel I have a lot to prove to get back to that position again. I want my whole team with me to try and make it happen again. But it is about one race. This point system is all about Homestead and how you produce in that one-off race in November. So we want to try to have some momentum going into that race. If something bad happens, it’s devastating. But I’m focussed on having the right parts and pieces when I get there and giving it our best shot.”
Watch Sadler talk about clinching the regular season:
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