HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- South Florida is a long way from Phoenix, in more ways than one. Cactus-covered hillsides and rugged copper mountains have been replaced by royal palm trees swaying in a humid breeze. A mile-long race track with a dogleg on the backstretch has been replaced by a high-speed intermediate oval. And yet, despite the transition in both climate and geography, at least one driver is having trouble leaving the Valley of the Sun behind.
"I still take the blame," Elliott Sadler said.
One week later, the Richard Childress Racing driver was still stewing over a crash in the final laps at Phoenix that turned his Nationwide Series championship quest into a desperate situation. Running 12th at the white flag, Sadler tangled with Cole Whitt and bounced off the wall right into the path of teammate Brendan Gaughan (watch). The resulting 22nd-place finish left him 20 points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who needs a 16th-place result in Saturday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his second consecutive series crown.
Given Stenhouse's affinity for Homestead -- a track where his worst finish in two starts is fourth -- the Roush Fenway driver would need a uncharacteristic collapse or breakdown to give away the title. It all adds up to another potential near-miss for Sadler, who finished in the same position behind the same driver one year ago, and barring a surprise turnaround will be left still chasing his first NASCAR crown.
"Twenty points is not undoable, but we know Ricky really runs well at this race track," Sadler said. "But us, for our team, we need to go out and do the best job we can this weekend, try to run up front, lead some laps, try to win the race and just let the points fall where they may. I'm not disappointed at all in the season we've had. We've won a lot of races, won some poles, been in the points lead. At a majority of the races this year we've definitely been in contention, and that's what our goal was when we went to Daytona."
Title or not, there's absolutely no need for him to feel disappointed. This two-year [so far] stint in the Nationwide Series has rejuvenated the career of a driver who won three times at the Sprint Cup level before ending up at a financially strapped previous incarnation of Richard Petty Motorsports that sapped his enthusiasm to compete. He may not yet have a championship, but he's clearly leaving a legacy -- one that's already becoming evident in the changing face of a Nationwide tour that, to a large degree because of Sadler, is getting stronger with each passing year.
Stenhouse may be on the brink of winning consecutive championships, but after this year he'll be moving on to the Sprint Cup tour and the No. 17 car currently occupied by Matt Kenseth. Although his 2013 plans have not yet been publicly announced, Sadler seems almost certain to stay and continue a process which he hopes will one day return him to NASCAR's premier division. In the meantime, though, the joy and success he's experienced at the Nationwide level has removed any stigma that might have existed over taking what in some minds is perceived as a step down.
Every driver has their own reasons, of course, but in a larger since it's very easy to view recent decisions by Regan Smith and Brian Vickers as following the example set by Sadler, who over the last two years has proven even veteran drivers can use the Nationwide tour as a vehicle for career advancement. Both race winners at NASCAR's premier level, Smith and Vickers will run full time on the Nationwide tour in 2013 for JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing respectively, adding a degree of star power to a circuit that's always had to find a balance between developing young drivers and featuring enough names to put people in the seats.
That latter goal was once achieved by moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers who hogged race wins and sponsorships, making it that much more difficult for anyone else to compete. As that trend has eased -- the likes of Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick still race Nationwide on occasion, but not nearly as regularly as they once did -- a series with a truer sense of self has emerged, one that makes room for youngsters like Ryan Blaney to develop, and is fronted by name drivers who are competing for a championship rather than a trophy. The Nationwide tour hasn't had an identity this defined since the days of Jason Keller and Randy LaJoie mixing it up on the Busch circuit.
And at the center of it all is Sadler, who two years ago could have hung on in Cup, plodding along in underfunded cars, a slave to his own pride. Instead, he took a Nationwide ride with Kevin Harvick Inc., later absorbed by RCR. The result was two great championship battles with Stenhouse, and a driver who rediscovered why he started racing in the first place.
"I had the option to stay in Cup at a lower-tier team," Sadler said. "And racing is out of sight, out of mind. It's probably the worst sport we have as far as out of sight, out of mind. So, is it race on Sunday, but race with maybe a lower-tier team? Or race on Saturday and try to win championships, try to win races, and try to get back to Cup that way? Because the ultimate goal is to try and get back toward the Chase. After talking to Dale Jarrett and getting advice from him, this felt like the best opportunity for me to be able to do that. And we're race car drivers. If you're a race car driver, you want to be competitive, you want to race hard. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."
To be fair, Sadler does not claim to be a trend-setter. His inspiration was Jarrett, his former teammate at Robert Yates Racing, who dropped off the Cup circuit himself in 1985 and '86 to refocus his career. "He did the same thing, and later in his career got himself in a better situation in Cup, and went on to win the championship," Sadler said. "So I think that's what the thinking is for a lot of us guys who are doing this now."
Granted, economic factors certainly play a role. Smith and Vickers would likely both be ticketed for the Sprint Cup tour in 2013 if fully funded rides were available. Sadler, though, showed the Nationwide Series can be a viable fallback position. "I just wanted to be in a car, in an organization [where] I was happy, and I felt like I could show up to the race track and I had a chance to win every week," Vickers said last week. Although Vickers wouldn't compare himself to Sadler -- their careers have been very different -- the RCR driver believes his successes over he past two years were noticed by those following his lead.
"I think so," Sadler said. "It's not any fun starting-and-parking. It's not any fun for those guys. They get a bad rap from people and everything, and it ain't no damn fun. Nobody wants to race that way, but you've got to do what you've got to do to survive in our sport. I think maybe they're just looking at how much fun we're having, and racing for wins and championships and things like that, and that's why they're going that way. And I'll think they'll be very successful at it."
Everyone wins -- a Nationwide tour that presents stronger fields, fans who get to watch a wider range of competitors, and drivers who are presented with an opportunity to rejuvenate their careers. Just like Sadler, whose impact on the series will be reflected in the starting grid next February. "I'm having a lot of fun," he said. "I didn't have fun at Phoenix, but I've had a lot of fun the last two years as far as racing. It's been great."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Elliott Sadler
- Nationwide tour
- Brian Vickers