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Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler

Elliott Sadler was half a lap from reminding everyone of his relevance in the Nationwide Series, or at the very least, bolstering his relevance to Joe Gibbs Racing.

The story instead goes that he was the poor soul passed by Chase Elliott at Darlington for the victory, something that quickly became a footnote in the Elliott narrative.

Second is the first loser, and no one remembers who was the runner-up, so when the 2014 Nationwide race at Darlington is talked about from now on, it’ll be that Chase Elliott charged from sixth to first in two laps, That he went back-to-back and made history. How he’s living up to family expectations and is on the fast track to the Sprint Cup Series.

What will it take for Elliott Sadler to see consistent success in the Nationwide Series?
What will it take for Elliott Sadler to see consistent success in the Nationwide Series?

Through all of that, will anyone remember that Elliott Sadler was oh-so-close to being the winner? It’s the story of Sadler’s career, a career where he’s mostly played the part of the lovable loser. Regardless of the series, and with cars of all kinds, the Virginia native has tried — and perhaps is still trying — to break through the glass ceiling. On the other side is a NASCAR where Sadler’s name is the headline, not the afterthought.

A winner here (Nationwide) and there (Trucks and Cup) makes him a weathered veteran. Sadler has been through it all and in doing so built a long-lasting and successful NASCAR career. Yet irrelevance in this sport can come in many forms; Sadler isn’t completely irrelevant because of his numbers because those numbers can in fact stand on their own.

Take, for instance, his last 107 races since returning to the Nationwide Series full time in 2011. He’s had more top 10s, top 5s, wins, and poles than he had in his entire 16-year Sprint Cup career. One would think he’d be hard-pressed to be less than content in his new position as a contender again, being that he’s no longer the also ran. Oh, he also nearly won the Nationwide championship in both 2011 and 2012, playing a part in a great two-year storyline with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

But his subsequent move from Childress to Gibbs has changed the game. If anything, it should have been a lateral move with nothing but improvement. After all, you’re going from Childress to Gibbs, arguably a much better situated team. At least on paper, it seemed logical that Sadler would blow his previous statistics out of the water. And then the races were run and it became clear that Sadler is no longer the center of attention in his new ride.

While he’s the only JGR driver chasing a Nationwide championship, he hasn’t taken precedence over his Cup Series teammates who run for the Nationwide owners championship. When one thinks of JGR they think of owners titles, Kyle Busch and records. Just like the face of Penske Racing would be Brad Keselowski.

Flash back to last Friday night in Darlington.

Half a lap, a checkered flag in sight. How much it could have changed.

Most would likely label Joe Gibbs Racing the superior team in the Nationwide Series. An organization any driver would love an opportunity with, one that gifts them the comfort of one of those Toyota Camry’s, and Sadler is no different. He is that driver sitting in the same cars that Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth drive to victory lane often.

Last year Busch was a 12-time winner; Kenseth notched a couple, too. The No. 11 team — the other team — was winless and fourth in the final point standings. Undoubtedly, a victory on Friday would have been much-needed, for more than just Sadler’s title hopes. Sadler has yet to win at JGR, coming off four wins with Childress in 2012. A Darlington victory could have alleviated that pressure and reentered his name as a topic of conversation.

The 2014 season is year two of the Sadler-Gibbs relationship. It’s an important year, a pivotal point if he wants to keep himself apart of the mix, a time to showcase that he is still in fact a grade-A driver deserving of being on a grade-A team.

How long Sadler’s deal with Gibbs is for is unknown, but one thing is for sure: the untapped potential. It’s bursting at the seams, ready to be unleashed — and it needs to, soon. Such potential was emblematic on days like Friday, which was the first time this season that Sadler had finished ahead of his teammates.

It will, for at least a little bit, stop the whispers. The out-loud wondering and confused questions about why the other Gibbs team isn’t like the rest. Yes, he’s in the conversation just not the right one.

But having almost stolen the show on Friday, Sadler sits third in points heading to his home track. Good, but in a world where fans, media and team owners alike are often insatiable, it won’t last long. Success is measured in wins, and Joe Gibbs Racing is quite successful.

Before too long the next race will be upon us, the next checkered flag doled out. And the more checkered flags that get away from Sadler and his team, the more they fade into the Gibbs background. They’re just another team.

That half a lap, less than a mile, was Elliott Sadler reminding everyone he’s still here.

About the author

Kelly is our Frontstretch Nationwide Series expert, hired in 2014 to handle Friday’s Nuts For Nationwide column as well as pre- and post-race analysis of NASCAR’s second-tier division. A former SpeedwayMedia.com reporter, she shares her FS duties with work at Popular Speed as an editor and feature contributor. Based in New Jersey, Kelly hopes to move down south in the near future while furthering her racing career.

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