On Elliott Sadler’s dash to the finish line in Phoenix last week, the lug nuts almost came off — literally.
Sadler completed that Phoenix race by finishing 13th and was feeling good about everything, knowing that was more than enough to qualify him as one of the top four drivers who could win the 2016 Xfinity season title at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.
As he pulled into pit road at the Phoenix race’s completion, his smile quickly turned to concern and puzzlement.
NASCAR officials surrounded his car and started inspecting the Chevrolet, and, after 30 minutes, concluded that the left-rear wheel had two loose lug nuts. In the world of NASCAR, that’s an infraction and the result was a “large fine” on the racing team and the suspension of crew chief Kevin Meendering for the Homestead race.
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“It was pretty stressful,” Sadler, 41, said of the wait as NASCAR officials hovered over his car. That said, Sadler said he was never worried about himself being disqualified for the Homestead race, where he will battle Daniel Suarez, 24, Justin Allgaier, 30, and Erik Jones, 20, for the season-long title.
“It is a safety violation,” Sadler said of the loose lug nuts, adding, “and we 100 percent understand what they did and the penalty.”
The last thing NASCAR wants to see, and this goes for any ordinary driver on the street, is one of your wheels rolling free next to you.
The NASCAR rule regarding lug nuts, explained Sadler, is that they must be firmly on the stud, “… and the lug nuts must be touching the wheel.” Two of Sadler’s lug nuts were not up against the wheel.
Is there any racing advantage to purposely having a loose lug nut? A slight one, Sadler said.
“It can increase the speed of a pit stop,” Sadler said, “maybe by a half-second.”
The main worry for Sadler about the lug nut controversy is that he will lose his crew chief.
“It’s like going to the Super Bowl without Bill Belichick,” Sadler said.
Taking over the crew chief role for Meendering will be Mike Bumgarner, based upon a recommendation by Meendering.
“We let Kevin ultimately make this decision because it’s his team,” team general manager Kelly Earnhardt Miller said. “Kevin chose Mike to sit in the crew chief’s seat and for good reason — he is experienced atop the pit box and very dependable. We have a great deal of confidence in Mike to give Elliott his best opportunity to win on Saturday.”
For Saturday’s 300-mile race, Meendering will pretty much be a spectator.
“He can’t be in the garage, can’t be in the pits, can’t be on pit road, he can’t see the car at any time,” Sadler said. “I guess he can watch the race on TV.”
Winning the Xfinity title would be special for Sadler.
“I think it would be great to pull it off, great for both Kevin and myself,” Sadler said. “To get it done without our leader would be unique. And a Xfinity Series title would mean more to me than anything. I’ve been close a couple of times, but it’s such a winner-take-all situation.”
In other words, to Sadler close is not good enough. Sadler is a sportsman for all seasons, in high school playing football, basketball, baseball, cross-country, soccer and golf. He was recruited by 20 colleges and ended up accepting a scholarship to James Madison in Virginia.
A knee injury in his first year at James Madison resulted in two surgeries and steered him, so to speak, into his auto racing career.
Sadler goes into Saturday’s 3:45 p.m. race with three wins in 2016, 13 top-five finishes and 28 top 10s in 32 races.
Impressive consistency, and in addition he will be competing on one of his favorite courses.
“I love the track,” he said of the Homestead course. “We have been really fast the last two months. We are going in confident with our car.”
If he does win, Sadler will have a lot of people to thank, and two of them are particularly important to him and will be in the stands watching on Saturday.
“My parents have sacrificed so much for me,” he said. “If I win, I will be happy for myself, but much more so for my parents.”