With two NASCAR Nationwide Series victories in the last three weeks, the Emporia, Virginia driver has taken a commanding, 25-point lead over Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the championship point standings, with no plans to relinquish it any time soon. Sadler claimed the checkered flag in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, remaining on track when others pitted for tires during the final caution, then running away from chief pursuers Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski over the final 28 laps to claim a 1.15-second victory.
|Sadler drove away on Saturday's final restart.|
"That was a great call by Luke,” said Sadler in Victory Lane. “He reminded me I won a race here in 2001 by doing the same thing, staying out. I wanted this one worse than anything, because I love this race track so much."
With all due respect to Lambert, however, third-place finisher Keselowski said Sadler had car enough to win; with or without his late-race strategy twist.
"I am sure a lot of people will make a lot about Elliott staying out, but he had a fast car," said Keselowski. "He drove by me under green right before the yellow came out, and I think he was legitimately running the fastest lap times. He had a fast car. You can't say he won (on) strategy... he's been doing a good job."
|Lambert and Sadler have clicked immediately|
That kind of happiness is something new for Sadler, who until last season ranked as the red-headed stepchild of former employer George Gillett. Gillett attempted to fire Sadler in favor of AJ Allmendinger in January of 2009, despite having a year remaining on their multi-year deal. Sadler learned of his planned ouster from one the team’s sponsors, and threatened to sue for breach of contract in a last-ditch effort to retain his position as driver of the #19 Dodge.
The suit was ultimately dropped when Gillett agreed to honor the final year of Sadler’s contract, but the Virginia driver rode out the string at Gillett Evernham Motorsports in a string of mediocre machines; collecting a series of finishes in the mid-20s. Last season, he jumped to Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s potent NASCAR Nationwide Series operation, leading the points for a substantial period of time before eventually settling for second place in the title chase to champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
This year, he seems determined to finally grab the brass ring.
Moving to Richard Childress Racing after KHI closed its competitive doors during the offseason, Sadler exploded out of the box with a pair of wins and an average finish of 2.0 in the first four starts of the 2012 campaign. After replacing Todd Berrier on veteran Jeff Burton’s Sprint Cup pit box for the final 16 races last season, Lambert and Sadler have wasted little time meshing, forging a trust and respect borne of similar outlooks and interests.
“We felt like (if) we came in and got our tires, we wouldn’t be where we wanted to be on the restart,” said Lambert after Saturday’s race. “There could have been a lot of cautions in quick succession, which would have made the advantage of having tires… go away. (But) the advantage of clean air was so strong, (Elliott) taking off was more than could be overcome. It was a tough call, but I was excited it worked out the way it did.”
If the first four weeks of the season are any indication, there is more excitement to come.
"He had a fast car. You can't say he won that in strategy in my mind. He's been doing a good job."
Kahne, who was teammates with Sadler in the Cup Series, said Sadler is driving with a renewed confidence.
"I watch Elliott right now, and I see him, he's as happy as he's been," Kahne said. "He's a good racer and right now he has a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum. He's walking around smiling, and he's confident with his car and his team. "
Stenhouse led 41 laps late, but lost the lead on the final caution and finished sixth. He trails Sadler by 25 points in the standings.
Joey Logano led a race high 119 laps and finished fourth, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth.
Justin Allgaier was seventh and was followed by Trevor Bayne, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Truex.
Bayne was a late addition to the race, added mid-week after RFR officials decided not to pull him because of a lack of sponsorship.
Bayne, who is ranked third in the series standings, believes team owner Jack Roush is sending him to California next week despite a lack of sponsor.