By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
After spending years in both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Elliott Sadler entered Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway on the verge of claiming his first championship. Unfortunately for Sadler it wasn’t meant to be.
Before the weekend even started, Sadler was ‘behind the eight ball,’ as his regular crew chief, Kevin Meendering was suspended after NASCAR found two loose lug nuts on the No. 1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet Camaro at the end of the race at Phoenix International Raceway. In place of Meendering was JR Motorsports Race Operations Manager Mike Bumgarner.
In the two practice sessions for the Ford EcoBoost 300, Sadler was 15th and 11th fastest respectively. In qualifying, Sadler just missed earning the pole, placing his car second on the grid. Fellow Championship Four contender, Daniel Suarez earned the pole. Erik Jones qualified third with Justin Allgaier sixth.
For Sadler, the race got off to an eventful start. Jones nudged the left rear of Sadler’s car, breaking a brace on the quarter panel of Sadler’s car while punching a nose on his own car.
As the race continued, Sadler rode just inside the Top 10, keeping his championship rivals in sight. However, handling issues kept Sadler from making a charge forward.
Near the halfway point of the race, Sadler began to move forward after adjustments on a pit stop. At the same time, his championship rivals were also up front as all four ran in the top four.
As Sadler battled his teammate and rival, Allgaier, Sadler drifted up into the wall. He dropped just outside the top five before a caution waved.
As the field pitted under caution, Sadler had a slow pit stop. The lug nuts fell off of the new left rear tire as it was being put on the car. The mistake proved costly as Sadler dropped on the grid from sixth, to 16th.
On the restart, Sadler struggled to move forward. 30 laps after the restart, Sadler had only climbed back up to the 11th position.
Luckily for Sadler, a caution waved with just under 10 laps to go when Ray Black Jr. spun on the front stretch. As the field pitted, Sadler and his team gambled and took just two tires. Sadler won the race off of pit road, but was not the leader.
Cole Whitt elected to stay on track and inherited the race lead under the caution.
On the restart with three laps to go, Whitt spun his tires, handing the lead to Sadler. Both Allgaier and Jones got stuck behind Whitt, giving Sadler a clear track ahead.
However, this gave Suarez the opportunity he needed to jump to Sadler’s outside. Suarez cleared Sadler as they exited turn two and drove away.
Meanwhile, Sadler slipped into the clutches of Ty Dillon. Instead of mounting a charge to reclaim the lead and fight for the championship, he now had to hold off Dillon. With Sadler on two tires, and Dillon on four tires, it was a losing battle.
Sadler crossed the line in third, and second in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship standings.
Sadler was disappointed and dejected that he was not able to claim his first NASCAR championship.
“This is by far the hardest [I’ve been through] because I feel like this is the best team I’ve probably ever worked with,” Sadler said. “Before when I’ve come to Homestead, I’ve been a few points back, and like if certain situations happened, you know, you might could win, but it’s a long shot, but here with four guys even, we all wanted to win. We all felt like we all had a chance of winning.
“With the team I have now, love them to death, and we’ve had such good racecars all year. We felt like we could come in here and compete and we made a great pit call there at the end to get some clean air, but yeah, it hurts, because I felt like we have prepped for so long for this race, and it didn’t go as well as we want through the middle part of it.”
Sadler and his JR Motorsports team can now regroup during the offseason and look forward to Daytona in February, they are also left to wonder if Meendering had been on the pit box, would the result Saturday at Homestead have been the same?