Elliott Sadler’s day began with a crash and ended with a crash. The destruction of his No. 2 Chevrolet was inconsequential compared with the crushing damage to his championship hopes.
He entered the Great Clips 200 at Phoenix International Raceway last Saturday in a points deadlock with 2011 NASCAR Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
He departed in a late-race accident that relegated him to 22nd place while his young rival was charging to a third-place finish behind Joey Logano and Brian Vickers.
Sadler looked like a man living a nightmare as he walked dejectedly from his battered car. But the 37-year-old Virginian who has revived a flagging career the past two seasons knows the stark difference between a nightmare and a setback.
Unfailingly honest, Sadler shouldered the blame at Phoenix, both for a trip into the wall in qualifying and the tangle in the closing laps of a race spent in stress-filled, catch-up mode.
He said his Richard Childress Racing team deserved better from him, “and I just apologize to them for putting them in this position heading into Homestead.”
Because Sadler chose an untimely setting to have a terrible day, Stenhouse can wrap up back-to-back Nationwide championships with a 16th-place finish in the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead on Saturday no matter how Sadler fares.
Maybe Sadler could have perceived an omen as he sat parked in backed-up traffic outside Charlotte, N.C., last Friday en route from his Emporia, Va., home to the airport for the flight to Phoenix.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said by telephone from his car, “the last few years in [Sprint Cup], I really felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff just waiting for somebody to come by and push me off.”
Sadler, a Sprint Cup regular from 1999 through 2010 with three victories, struggled through 2009 and 2010 seasons of misery with the No. 19 car fielded by George Gillette Jr.
He doesn’t go into chapter and verse but admits there were “so many sideshows going on” with an underfunded operation preparing hand-me-down equipment that he didn’t know from race to race whether “there was going to be an engine to put in the car.”
Sadler had finished runner-up to Tony Stewart for 1999 Cup rookie of the year in Wood Brothers equipment, he had qualified for the inaugural 2004 Cup Chase driving for Robert Yates, and here he was with the Gillette bunch wondering whether he had reached the end of the NASCAR road at age 35.
That’s the perspective from which he can appreciate even a remaining slim chance Saturday to achieve a desperately desired championship in a secondary but still major-league NASCAR series.
He describes the opportunity to join Kevin Harvick’s team for the 2011 Nationwide season as a career revival. He chased Stenhouse to the title and finished as points runner-up.
If the Ford 300 produces a repeat of that near-miss in his final race with RCR, which absorbed the Harvick operation this year, he’ll deal with it.
“Racing is definitely looked at through a different window for me today than it was three, four years ago,” he said.
The chance to arrive at a track knowing your car is going to be fast and you have a chance to win is rejuvenating, he said.
“Wow, does that make it fun,” he said with the characteristic enthusiasm that had waned. “Man, does that remind you again of a kid racing go-karts at 7 years old!”
Sadler, not quite ready to confirm 2013 plans but rumored to be joining Joe Gibbs’ powerhouse Nationwide operation, makes no secret of his desire to return to Cup ranks. For anyone who sees age as a possible barrier, he has a valid rebuttal.
“Look at the last seven Sprint Cup championships that have been won,” he said. “Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart are my age.” In fact, three-time champion Stewart is 40 and five-time ruler Johnson is 37. If the rejuvenation of his career enables Sadler to compete into his mid- to late-40s, he recognizes that equates to being at the 350-mile mark of a 500-mile race.
It doesn’t escape his attention that Stenhouse, just past his 25th birthday, is destined to move into Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing next year.
“Ricky and I have raced each other for two championships in two seasons, and we’re each other’s biggest competitor,” he said. “I honestly can say that Ricky Stenhouse has made me a better race car driver, and I’ve heard him say the same about me.”
Sadler was reflecting back to those grim 2009 and 2010 seasons last Friday when he said NASCAR racing is “a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport” and repeated the adage that “you’re only as good as your last race.”
But he knows he’s light years better than last race. He hopes he can demonstrate that and apply pressure to Stenhouse come Saturday.