The 30 minutes following the Ticket Galaxy 200 were way more stressful for Elliott Sadler than the actual race at Phoenix International Raceway.
After safely finishing 13th to gain access in the Championship 4 along with his JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, NASCAR officials discovered that not all five lug nuts were secure on the No. 1 One Main Financial Chevrolet.
“The emotions of the last 30 minutes have been tough,” Sadler said. “One (lug nut) was loose and I think one was in question. Kevin (crew chief Meendering) has pretty much become my best friend. And Kevin has made me a race car driver again this year. Sitting there, he and I were going through all this emotion that we had done everything we needed to do to get ready for Homestead.
“We saved our Darlington car — our best car for Homestead — and put all our eggs in that car. We’ve done everything we thought was right as a race team to go to Homestead with a legitimate shot of being a champion.”
Sadler, 41, came to JR Motorsports this season looking for a fresh start. For the first time in five years, he's competitive again. Sadler earned five wins, 13 top fives and a career-best 28 top-10 finishes in 32 starts in the No. 1 Chevy.
Losing his crew chief
After nine full seasons on NASCAR's Xfinity tour, this opportunity has been Sadler’s best shot at the title. It’s understandable how losing the crew chief, who rejuvenated his career, for the most important race of the season would leave the driver disappointed.
“The last 30 minutes, he and I, wondering if he was able to be a part of it or not is, uh, now that we know that he’s not, he’s going to be suspended, it’s going to be tough,” Sadler said. “That dude is really good, he’s really smart. He’s a great leader. He has a lot of superlatives I could use for a while. He’s given me some fast race cars this year.
“My car for next week is prepared. It’s already been to NASCAR. It’s been teched. It already has its stickers. It’s ready to go, so we’re prepared as a race team can be. It’s just the fine-tuning — doing all the little things we have to communication-wise to run against three really good competitors.”
Title chance was never in jeopardy
Crew chief Kevin Meendering had been fined $5000 last week following the race at Texas Motor Speedway when one lug nut was not "safe and secure against the wheel" (Sections 12.1; 10.11.3.4 Note: Lug nut(s) not properly installed).
Although Sadler endured a few tense moments following the race as officials scoured his car, NASCAR Xfinity Series director Wayne Auton said Sadler’s status in the Championship 4 Round was never in question.
“At the end of the race we bring all the cars down to the entrance of pit road for inspection of the wheels and the lug nuts,” Auton said. “We observed that the No. 1 car had two lug nuts not secured to the wheel. With that being said, all the teams were very much aware at the start of the Chase of the violations that could come about.
“We’ve advised the team that they’re going to be looking for a crew chief for next week and a monetary fine of about $10,000. It’s clearly in the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series rule book.”
Why not Dale Jr.?
Sadler wasn’t certain who JR Motorsports would provide as his substitute crew chief for the season finale. With team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the sidelines, Sadler says the bossman would be his first choice.
“I said, ‘Dale Jr. He’s who I’d like to be my crew chief,” Sadler said. “Who else other than the owner to come in do it? They probably won’t listen to me. Honestly, all joking aside, Kevin will probably make that decision, who he feels like has the best communication with me. Ryan Pemberton, of course, is our competition director. He’s in a lot of meetings with us here at the race track. He understands our personalities so it will probably be him.
“But if I have a vote, which I don’t think I do per JRM logistics, I would say Dale Jr. would be a great crew chief. He’s won the championship there at Homestead before in the Xfinity Series. So I think he’d be the perfect fit.”
After more than 20 seasons of NASCAR competition, Sadler understands the challenge he's facing next Saturday as he attempts to win the season finale without his regular crew chief.
“It’s definitely an uphill battle that we have to go through. But I’m a grown man. I’ve got a lot of experience. I need to be a leader. I need to be a quarterback. I need to pick up the slack. I need to stay focus. I need to do a lot of things this week to make sure my guys are ready when we unload at Homestead.”