Elliott Sadler, who won the first-ever Chase race for NASCAR’s Xfinity Series on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, is doing something career-wise that seems fairly logical, but in reality rarely happens: He’s forged a career in the Xfinity Series after his Sprint Cup career faltered.
Sadler once was a promising young Sprint Cup racer who won three Cup races from 2001 to 2004. But his career at NASCAR’s elite level had stalled by the 2010 season.
Instead of pursuing rides with back-marker Cup teams, as many once-hot prospects often do, Sadler took a step further back to the No. 2 circuit, now known as Xfinity, and resurrected his career.
Eddie Wood, who co-owned the No. 21 Ford that Sadler drove to his first Cup victory at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2001, said Sadler has made a successful transition to Xfinity because he’s made good decisions that landed him in fast cars. Wood also said Sadler is good at keeping his sponsors happy, which keeps the dollars flowing to his teams.
Wood sees Sadler’s recent success as a sign of better things to come for his fellow Virginia resident. (Sadler is from Emporia; Wood from Stuart.)
“Elliott is all about confidence,” Wood said. “When he has it, he’s hard to beat.”
Sadler’s win at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night was the 13th of his career in the series and his third this season — joining victories at Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway.
In the bigger picture for Sadler, he seems to be peaking at just the right time. His latest win was his fourth top-four finish in a row. That represents an improvement over an already remarkably consistent season that has seen him score 11 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 27 races this year.
At Kentucky, Sadler didn’t appear to have a winning car, but crashes by some of the faster drivers allowed him to begin the final restart on the front row.
Although outside front row starter Ryan Blaney had a much faster car, Sadler got a mighty push from third-starting Daniel Suarez. That allowed Sadler to clear Blaney and drive away to victory, one that was especially rewarding because his mother had been hospitalized for most of the week leading up to the race.
“I’ve had a really hard week on not much sleep,” Sadler said in his winner’s interview. “So to come here and be able to walk away with a trophy is very special, more than you probably know.”
He said he was inspired by his mother, Bell Sadler, who has been battling cancer.
“I’ve watched my mom fight so much,” he said. “She’s a tough rascal, man, battling a lot. Had two surgeries — one on Monday and one on Tuesday.
“If I can see my 70-year-old mom fight like that to get better and want to make it home, I sure can fight inside the race car and do a better job.”
Sadler’s victory also was a rewarding one for his car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also has been battling health issues related to a concussion suffered midway through the Sprint Cup season.
Suarez finished second ahead of Ryan Blaney, who flew in from New Hampshire Motor Speedway to drive the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske. Part-time driver Sam Hornish Jr. had another strong run, finishing fourth over Matt Tifft, who was racing in the Xfinity Series for the first time since being sidelined in July for surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.
Saturday’s race put a damper on the Chase hopes of some of the division’s top drivers. Erik Jones, who entered the Chase as the top seed, was battling with fellow Chaser Ty Dillon with 13 laps to go when they crashed.
“It’s my fault,” said Jones, who finished 28th and dropped to ninth in the standings after starting from the pole and leading 100 laps. “We definitely had a winning car, but we just made a mistake and it ended our night.”
Dillon, who led 47 laps and finished 27th, was similarly disappointed.
“We’re in a hole,” he said. “We had speed ... so we can win races. It just hurts.”