Friday 5: Elliott Sadler excited to be back in a car at Richmond

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

Elliott Sadler doesn’t look back on his decision to step away from full-time racing with regret.

“It is 100 percent the best decision I made,” he told NBC Sports this week.

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But he’s also looking forward to his return to the Xfinity Series tonight for Kaulig Racing at Richmond Raceway. This is one of two races Sadler is scheduled to drive this season (the other is Sept. 14 at Las Vegas). 

Sadler, 43, said it became clear last year that it was time for him to step back.

“A few things helped in my decision,” said Sadler, who has 13 Xfinity and three Cup victories. “I know what it takes to race at this level. I understand the homework you have to do, the videos you have to watch, the notes you have to take, the simulation you have to study, the working out that you have to do, the whole mental and physical part of it.

“I was at the point last year where I did not and just could not do all the things that I wanted to do. I lost that drive to do it 100 percent. I couldn’t make myself go to the gym, every day, every night. I couldn’t make myself watch videos … all the time. So I lost a little bit of that drive. I didn’t want to half-ass it. I’m not that kind of person.

“I knew that if I was not going to do everything that I knew I needed to do to compete at a 100 percent level like some of these other guys, like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, some of these guys that I know work their butts off to stay in the shape they’re in and live on the edge, there was no need for me to do it.”

Sadler said another key factor was being more involved with his family and children, 9-year-old Wyatt and 7-year-old Austyn.

“I think that is why I lost some of my drive to do this every weekend,” Sadler said of racing. “It’s hard to race 33 weekends a year when you’ve got kids at home. I’m not singing the blues by no means. I was in a good point in my life where if I had to make a decision or wanted to make the decision to stay at home more and be a part of my kids’ life I could and that’s the decision I ended up making.”

Sadler is coaching his kids in sports and noted that earlier this week their team won a baseball tournament championship in extra innings in Richmond.

“I told my wife, after the game we were driving home, I said, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “This is one of the happiest days of my life, watching all these kids fight through what they did to win the championship. That’s what it is all about.”

Sadler admits he is excited to get back into the car this weekend. Although he’s missed the first seven races, he isn’t worried. He looks to friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran in Richmond’s Xfinity race in September in his only start of the year and finished fourth, leading 96 of 250 laps. Sadler seeks his first career Xfinity win at Richmond.

“I’m not putting a uniform on to go ride around and be fan,” Sadler said. “I could just buy a ticket if I wanted to be a fan. I want to be a part of the race and a part of the action.”

2. Heavy on the gas

Denny Hamlin acknowledged this week on Twitter that his pit road speeding penalties are “frustrating for me … frustrating for the team.”

Hamlin was caught speeding on pit road last weekend at Bristol after he exited first with less than 85 laps to go. He restarted outside the top 15 and went on to finish fifth.

The speeding penalty was his third of the season, tying Hamlin with Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie for most in Cup in the first eight races of the season.

Such penalties are not new to Hamlin. His 23 pit road speeding penalties since 2016 rank third in the series. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 19.8% of the 116 Cup races run since 2016, according to Racing Insights.

The drivers with the most pit road speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) since 2016 are:

27 – Michael McDowell

24 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

23 – Denny Hamlin

16 – Austin Dillon

16 – David Ragan

15 – Kasey Kahne

14 – Corey LaJoie

14 – Kyle Busch

14 – Paul Menard

Hamlin is a bit better in the playoffs the past three years. He has five speeding penalties. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 16.7% of the 30 playoff races run since 2016.

Here are the drivers with the most speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) in playoff races since 2016:

11 – Michael McDowell

9 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

6 – David Ragan

5 – Daniel Suarez

5 – Denny Hamlin

5 – Kasey Kahne

5 – Landon Cassill

5 – Matt Kenseth

4 – Corey LaJoie

4 – J.J. Yeley

4 – Jimmie Johnson

4 – Paul Menard

3. How much more change is needed to qualifying?

NASCAR told Cup teams Thursday that it was reducing the first and second round of qualifying from 10 minutes to five for today at Richmond Raceway. The final round will remain five minutes.

NASCAR stated that this is not the new qualifying format moving forward. The change was made after all 24 cars did not go on to the track in the first five minutes of the second round last weekend at Bristol.

NASCAR has made it clear it doesn’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. Officials still have to figure out what to do about qualifying at bigger tracks where drafting plays a role.

But changing the rules time after time and spending so much time discussing qualifying — instead of the race — makes it seem as if the sport has fallen into a rabbit hole on this matter.

If the sport is against single-car qualifying and officials need to keep tweaking the format time after time, the question becomes is qualifying necessary?

Want to make setting the lineup simple? Fine. Make the starting lineup based on how drivers finished in the previous race.

Finishing order from the previous race also determines the pit stall picks. If the car didn’t race the week before, it starts behind all those that ran that race. If there are more cars than spots, then have single-car qualifying among the cars that did not compete the race before.

Problem solved. Now the sport can move on to something else.

4. Working together (finally)

It took a while but Michael McDowell got Drew Blickensderfer to be his crew chief. Blickensderfer was someone McDowell had targeted previously.

“When I was at (Leavine Family Racing), I tried really hard to get Drew, and the biggest reason is watching him from the garage and two, I became good friends with Carl (Edwards),” said McDowell, now with Front Row Motorsports. “And Carl and I would have fun conversations, and Carl is an intense guy, and I said, ‘Hey if you were going to go to battle, who would you go with?’ He’s like, ‘I’d take Drew with me.’

“So that was always ingrained a little bit in my mind, and then just seeing Drew, and I see him from afar, and I felt he’s always overachieved and always had that leadership and that intensity. Yeah, it’s just like one of those things where you just know when you know, and so I fought hard for years to try to get him, and it just never really worked out, and opportunity became available kind of late in the game and late in the (off)season and really thankful to get him over there.”

McDowell saw firsthand how Blickensderfer battled when he stepped in after McDowell went to the ground in his confrontation with Daniel Suarez at ISM Raceway in March. Blickensderfer pinned Suarez against the hood of McDowell’s car on pit road.

“The battle part wasn’t a reference to Suarez, but you know, you can tell if you look at Drew and look at his ears, they’re closed up for a reason,” McDowell said. “He’s been on the mat and on the floor a lot. And him and I kind of joked about that because he obviously stepped in there, and you could just see it was instincts. He’s got that fire about him. I didn’t want him because he can take care of all the drivers for me … but that intensity is what you’re looking for.”

McDowell enters this weekend 28th in points. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 but has had one top 20 since, placing 15th at Texas.

5. Bounty award for fans

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman noted on Thursday’s NASCAR America that he’d like to see a bounty paid to any driver that can beat Kyle Busch, who has won three of the first eight races this season. Kligerman noted it’s an old short-track promotion done when someone dominates.

It’s a good idea, but why not include the fans? If someone beats Kyle Busch – or better yet, if any team can win other than Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske – then maybe that track takes the number of the winning car and deducts that much from the ticket (with a ceiling as to how much those tickets can be reduced). Make the fans a part of something like that.

And tracks could still win by offering some sort of special ticket price if Busch wins or a JGR car or Team Penske car does.

No, this isn’t going to suddenly pack every track’s grandstands. That’s not the intent. It would be a way to have a little fun and maybe help fans with the cost of tickets and encourage a few others to purchase them.

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