With five events remaining in the season, the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship battle shows all appearances of coming down to a two-man race. All of which makes the driver in third place seethe.
"Look, hoss, I'm competitive, man," Elliott Sadler said. "I don't care what we're playing, I don't play to finish fourth. We want to win, or I want to run up front, or I want to win the damn race or I want to be in the championship discussion. So if I sat here and told you, 'Oh, it's fine,' I'd be lying through my teeth."
While front-runners Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon are separated by just four points at the top of the standings, Sadler is a somewhat distant third, 42 points off the pace. This after two seasons in which Sadler was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s toughest competition for the title, where he twice finished as runner-up to a driver who has since moved on to the Sprint Cup Series.
Over the previous two seasons, Sadler has stood first or second in Nationwide points for all but 12 weeks. So his current situation is a little unusual, not to mention uncomfortable. In his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing, the veteran NASCAR racer needs the drivers ahead of him to suffer some missteps in order for him to become a factor in the championship mix once again.
"I'll be honest with you, I feel like we're going to need some help," Sadler said at Charlotte Motor Speedway, during an event to promote breast cancer awareness. "We're on the outside looking in. And what I mean by on the outside looking in is, I think one of those cars has to stumble. Because it's 40-some points, five races to go. I don't see the (Hornish) running 20th every week. That's what I mean by on the outside looking in. If he has an issue or two, then we'll have a chance. But what that means for us is, we've got to be there to pick the ball up. If we run like crap, it doesn't matter if he has a screw-up or not."
Hornish had one of those last weekend at Dover, where a pit road speeding penalty sent the Penske Racing driver to his worst finish in two months. Sadler finished 14th, enough to trim 12 points off his deficit and move into third place in the standings.
He'll need more outcomes like that to get back into the title picture. His JGR teammate Brian Vickers, fifth in the standings and 47 points out, is in the same situation. "It's their championship to lose," Vickers said. "They have to have more days like they had at Dover."
Although Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch has dominated the Nationwide ranks this year, winning 10 races in JGR equipment, his teammates have suffered through more trying campaigns. Neither Sadler nor Vickers has reached Victory Lane, and both have been plagued by inconsistences that have prevented them from mounting a real challenge to those at the top of the standings.
"We've run as strong or stronger than they have consistently, the guys who are racing for the championship. But we've just had a lot of things happen to us this year -- blown engines, loose wheels, pit issues, incidents on the track," Vickers said. "When we finish, we're pretty consistently in the top five or three. But if we're not in the top five, we're not like seventh. We're like 30th. And I think that's what hurt us this year more than anything."
Sadler ticks off items like an engine failure at Bristol, a brush with the wall at Atlanta, a spin at New Hampshire. "Those lows, with the one-point system that we have and the competition level that we have in the Nationwide Series, you can't gain but so many points," he said. "What I've learned in the Nationwide Series the last couple of years is, those lows end up being real low. Like real low. You can't have many of those. You can't have but so many finishes worse than like a 15th. You have too many of those ? you're just not going to make it."
Vickers is moving back into the Sprint Cup ranks after this season to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sadler said JGR and sponsors were talking about him returning to the organization in 2014. "All them are working on it," he said. "If they want me back, they'll let me know. But I think we should be back."
In the meantime, the Virginia native is trying to crawl back into a championship mix where he's been a major player over the past two seasons. That quest continues Saturday at Kansas Speedway, where he's finished fourth and third in each of the previous two years. But even with another run like that, he'd likely still need help to prevent Hornish and Dillon from deciding the title among themselves.
"It is frustrating, because the last two years I felt like I was more in control of my own destiny, and more in the middle of it, and winning races and sitting on poles and doing all those things," Sadler said. "This year it's been a little more frustrating, because we haven't really broke that barrier yet. We haven't led the points all year long. Every time we got to second, something happened and we'd fall back to third or fourth. We'd shoot ourselves in the foot every once in a while. So a little frustrating, yeah."
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