Last season, Elliott Sadler finished second in points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with no wins, 12 top fives and 24 top 10s.
“Last year we did have a great season,” he says. “You know, but it was the first year with this Nationwide car, and we all kind of had to learn it together, not only myself but also my crew chief Ernie Cope and also everybody at KHI. We went through some growing pains towards the beginning of the season, I felt like we got okay there at the end of the season and just missed our goal a little bit. We really wanted to win the championship and that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t from lack of effort. But we felt like we steadily improved as the year went on.”
So far this season, it seems that Sadler is off to a better start as he has two wins and five top 10s in five races, leading the points.
“We’re definitely off to a fast start,” he continues. “We’re competing at a higher level this year than what we did I feel like the whole entire season last year, which is always good. We feel like as a team we’re communicating together very well. We have a lot of experience on my race team. A lot of the guys on my team have been on the 29 Cup car the last couple years, so experience is always a key factor, and we feel like we’re bringing really fast race cars to the track, and we’re still improving.”
One of the main differences is last year, Sadler drove for Kevin Harvick Incorporated (KHI), which was a stand-alone Nationwide/Truck team. With KHI closing the doors, everything was shifted from their shop to the Richard Childress Racing shop.
“I just think being on the same campus as a Cup-affiliated team and being on the same campus with Cup teams that have so much engineering help and so much technical support,” he says. “A lot of that trickles down to our shop. Just helps our program a lot.”
Over the past couple of years, Sprint Cup Series teams and drivers have dominated the series. However, this year in the first five races, Nationwide-only drivers have won four of the races.
“I think everybody is learning more about these cars,” Sadler says. “I think the Cup guys had a lot of experience in this style of race car for the last five or six years. A lot of Nationwide guys it was their first year in this style of car with the splitter and now the valance and stuff on the front end. The cars definitely drive a lot different, react a lot different in the race, react a lot different in traffic and aero wise. So I just think everybody has learned more about these cars this winter and we’re all kind of, I think, closer on the same playing field, and I think that’s why we’re seeing some different winners than what we saw in the past.”
Sadler says that being able to beat the Cup guys is a great feeling.
“The race we won in Phoenix, I had to outrun Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, guys that really run good at Phoenix,” he says. “When I went to Bristol and won the race, I had to compete against guys like Kasey Kahne and Dale Jr. and Brad Keselowski again and Kevin Harvick, and these are all people that win and run very well on Sundays and are high in the points. So of course it feels good when you can go out there and compete with these guys in the same equipment on Saturday. It gives you a lot of confidence, feels like it gives you some momentum, gives you kind of the attitude that if you’re in a good situation on Sunday that you could also run with those guys then.”
This weekend the Nationwide Series heads to Texas where Sadler has three top fives and five top 10s in eight starts. The track means a lot to him as he was the first person to drive a racecar around the 1.5-mile oval in 1996.
“It’s a place I look forward to,” he notes. “It’s a place I feel like we’re going to run good at and we have a chance to win even before we unload. We’re taking a very good race car with us there this weekend, the same car I had at Vegas that we sat on the pole with, and hopefully we’ll go there and be fast and have a good weekend.”
Sadler has a Sprint Cup Series win at Texas, which came in 2004 when he beat Kasey Kahne to the line.
“I think the last-ever Cup race I ever ran at Texas, I sat on the pole and ran the fastest-ever lap time ever ran by a COT car, and that still stands today so that’s pretty special,” Sadler says of the fall race in 2010.
It is also a track that produces competitive racing based on how the track has aged through the years, he adds.
“The grooves really open up,” he explains. “You can really challenge this track, especially at nighttime, and should put on a good show for the fans there. Hopefully they’ll come out and support us.”