DARLINGTON, S.C. — On a Labor Day weekend featuring throwbacks of all kinds at Darlington Raceway, 41-year-old Elliott Sadler turned back the hands of time and recaptured his youthful exuberance in claiming his first victory at ‘The Track Too Tough To Tame’ on Saturday.
The current series points leader, who was already locked into the chase with his win at Talladega Superspeedway back in April, lead a race-high 75 of 147 laps en route to victory in the VFW/Sport Clips ‘Help A Hero’ 200.
While the win was the 12th of Sadler’s career and his second of the season, he had to work for it after making contact with the wall with two laps to go — nearly getting passed by four-time Darlington XFINITY winner Denny Hamlin before rallying back on the high lane to hold off Hamlin’s advances for the win.
JR Motorsports’ third win of the year was also sweet for team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced Friday he would miss the remainder of the Sprint Cup season due to lingering concussion symptoms.
“This (win) is for Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” an emotional Sadler said in victory lane. “My owner has given me one heck of an opportunity this year and I know he’s going through a lot this year. This is for you, my man.”
The win also emphasizes Sadler’s place in the XFINITY field, after primary sponsor OneMain Financial re-upped their contract with JRM 10 days ago following the original news that they would exit the sport in July.
“We’ve been through alot this last month or so. All the executives from One-Main Financial … they believe in this sport, they love the fans in this sport and they want to invest in it a couple more years. It meant the world to me and this is huge for all of us.”
In all, only three cautions slowed the pace during the 200 mile distance. Two of the yellows came early — at lap 21, when B.J. McLeod crashed on the backstretch; and at lap 52, when David Starr got tangled up with Mario Gosselin off turn four.
The final caution flew with 44 to go during a cycle of green flag stops, when Kyle Larson spun in turn four ahead of Ryan Blaney, who slowed up to try and get to pit road but was rear-ended by Carl Long. Ross Chastain was also collected as collateral damage.
That caution sent the leaders down pit road for the final time on the day, with Hamlin assuming the point as Blaney pitted ahead of Sadler, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, who had all also pitted before the caution flew.
On the final restart, Sadler stayed with Hamlin on the outside groove and was able to take the lead, a position he would not relinquish despite his late contact with the wall.
Though Hamlin tried everything he could in the final laps, the Virginia native was unable to get back around Sadler for the win and had to settle for second.
“I knew I was going to be really tight after I got the wall there. I kind of beat up our right side a little bit on that (last) run,” a dejected Hamlin said. “It’s probably my fault. I told (crew chief) Chris (Gayle) that he had to do something to tighten us up if we had to race anybody and we just overdid it. It was just plowing tight that last run. I wasn’t good on restarts and all that means is, we finished second.”
“Congratulations to Elliott Sadler, I tried to win it for Sport Clips — they do a lot this weekend and do a lot for our military — so thank (CEO) Gordon (Logan) for that. We just came up short and I would have really liked another win here, but we’ll have to wait until next year.”
June Michigan winner Daniel Suarez finished third, ahead of Kyle Larson’s Marty Robbins throwback and Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Brennan Poole.
Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Jeremy Clements, Brandon Jones and Ryan Preece rounded out the top 10.
Of note, Sadler credited his win to the help Dale Jarrett gave him at Darlington 20 years ago when he was first finding his footing in the sport, scoring the breakthrough victory in a throwback scheme that he and Jarrett co-drove back in 2005 for Yates Racing.
“I met Dale Jarrett here in 1996 when he was practicing for the Winston Million, and he took time to teach a little kid from Virginia how to get around this race track. That’s why his name was on the other side (of the car) today.”
“He’s meant a lot to me and to my career, not only as a race car driver but also as a man. So, there are two big reasons why it’s so special to be here in Victory Lane — Dale Jr. and Dale Jarrett. I couldn’t be more proud to celebrate this one. It means so much.”
The NASCAR XFINITY Series returns to action on Sept. 9 at Richmond Int’l Raceway, with the Virginia 529 College Savings 250.