Things seem to be all friendly between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler heading into Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. Nationwide Ford EcoBoost 300 finale at Homestead Motor Speedway. Of course, that would be off the track, not necessarily on it.
A tight race for the season series championship can turn friendly smiles into dead-serious, jaw-clenching concentration. No mean feelings, just competitive feelings.
Stenhouse enters the race with a fairly comfortable 20-point lead in trying to become only the sixth driver in the history of the series to win back-to-back titles. He’s striving to join Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy Lajoie (1996-97), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99) and Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05).
Of the possibility of joining that group, Stenhouse said, “That would be huge. You know, that was the goal we set coming into this year. We’re coming down to my favorite racetrack [Homestead], so I can’t think of a better place to finish it off.”
Stenhouse then paid the ultimate compliment to the Homestead track.
“I feel if you want to build a racetrack, you’ve got to build it like Homestead,” he said.
Stenhouse called the competition at the top of the Nationwide series friendly but vocal.
“There’s a lot of talking going on,” he said, “but this year has been fun with these guys [Sadler and third-place Austin Dillon]. If you don’t get along, it makes for a long season.”
Of course, Dillon isn’t giving up on his hope of capturing the title, slim though it might be as he stands 25 points back. The winner will come from those three since fourth-place Sam Hornish Jr. is 107 points behind and not even a mathematical possibility.
Sadler called his relationship with Stenhouse one of “… mutual respect. I think he makes me better as a race-car driver. I learned things from him, and I think he learned things from me. I think we definitely want to outrun each other on the track, but we want to do it the right way.”
Dillon jokingly jumped in with what he personally wants to see as a scenario Saturday. “I hope it gets nasty,” he said. “I hope they door-slam each other off of Turn 4, and I make it through the smoke.”
Jeff Gordon gave a semi-apology for intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer’s car a week ago at Phoenix in the Sprint Cup Series.
The wreck caused by Gordon, which he did as retaliation for an incident earlier in the race, prompted a brawl by the pit crews.
“The one thing I’ll say,” Gordon said, “is that last week, the thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice. I felt like Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn’t the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. And what I hate most about it is that other guys were involved with it, and it affected their day. I certainly look back on it and wish I had done things differently.”
Gordon was fined $100,000 and penalized 25 points in the season points standings. Gordon and Bowyer are both racing at Homestead, but they have yet to speak since the incident.