Elliott Sadler seemed like he was about to finally win a NASCAR championship last year. It’s bad enough he had to go back to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but to lose the title in such a grueling way was a real wake up call for the Emporia, Va. native.
After announcing the move away from Richard Childress Racing last season, Sadler made the change to the Toyota team of Joe Gibbs Racing. Sadler admitted that he had trouble adjusting to the new team since everything was so different from what he had seen with the Chevrolet squad, but it’s been 14 races through the season, nearly halfway, and Sadler still hasn’t been to victory lane.
Sadler has had 24 top 10′s each of the last two NASCAR Nationwide Series seasons, one with Kevin Harvick Incorporated and the other with RCR. However, if he keeps up this pace, he’ll barely make it to 20 top-10′s this year.
The move to Joe Gibbs Racing was supposed to be one for the better for Sadler. After seeing the past dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series, he and Brian Vickers believed they were the best team to drive for this year. Yet, both drivers are win-less so far this year and have barely competed for wins. The team also has the No. 54 car of Kyle Busch who’s dominated so far this year with six wins in the 11 races he’s been entered in.
It appears that most of the top equipment is going to Busch when the other two drivers and just trying to show everyone that they can still race. Vickers is attempting to lock up a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride with Michael Waltrip Racing, while Sadler is just trying to get back up to NASCAR’s top division, even if it’s on a part-time basis.
Sadler has had strong cars at the Auto Club Speedway, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega, Daytona, Darlington and Iowa. Other than those events, the team has struggled, especially at the larger tracks. This weekend, Sadler was 11th in the first practice at Kentucky, but then in the final practice, he dropped outside of the top-20 to the 21st position. Though he struggled last year at Kentucky as well, the struggles which Joe Gibbs Racing has endured at the 1.5 mile tracks this year isn’t what they were expecting.
Working with a rookie crew chief also has to do with Sadler’s struggles. Chris Gayle, who wasn’t even an interim crew chief before, has led the way for Sadler and has made some rather good calls, but other questionable ones. The team just isn’t as aggressive as Sadler’s previous team was last year.
The main reason Sadler left RCR was because there wasn’t a definite future for him on that team. Team owner, Richard Childress, has two notable grandchildren which are rapidly climbing up through the NASCAR ranks and will be in two of his three Sprint Cup Series teams sooner rather than later. It was wise for Sadler to leave when he did, but at the same time, Joe Gibbs Racing shouldn’t have signed so many drivers when they can’t provide the equipment to win a championship. As of now, Sadler is barely fifth in points and Vickers is back in ninth.
Sadler was slated for three Sprint Cup Series races in the No. 81 Toyota this year with sponsorship from Alert Energy Gum. However, Wrigley canceled that product and put Doublemint on his car for one race. He didn’t impress anyone at Kansas where he was running approximately 30th in his first start on a speedway in two years and ended up wrecking 85 laps into the race. Sadler had a strong car at Talladega, but didn’t make the race due to a rain out in qualifying. His next chance is at the October Talladega race, but by then, he should know what he’s doing next year. If he wants to get a job back in the Sprint Cup Series, he’s going to have to win a few races before he even gets any offers. As of now, it looks like he’ll be back in the Nationwide Series for yet another year.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.