BY TINA AKOURIS, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Elliott Sadler has been around NASCAR Sprint Cup garages for the last 11 years, racing for teams such as the Wood Brothers, Robert Yates Racing and Gillett Evernham Motorsports. So when the 36-year-old was thinking about making a career change last summer, he leaned on ESPN analyst and former Cup champion driver Dale Jarrett for guidance.
Those talks with Jarrett helped Sadler make the move from the Sprint Cup series, where he was racing for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010, and devote his energy full-time to NASCAR’s Nationwide series this season.
It was a good move. When Sadler rolls into Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet for the STP 300 on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN), he will be sitting atop the Nationwide standings in the No. 2 OneMain Financial Chevrolet for Kevin Harvick, Inc.
Sadler, who has 452 points, has a one-point lead over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and a two-point lead over Reed Sorenson. Justin Allgaier, a native of Riverton, Ill., is fourth, 22 points behind Sadler. In 13 Nationwide races, Sadler has seven top-five finishes and nine top-10s.
Sadler is a big fan of Chicagoland Speedway’s 1.5-mile D-shaped oval. Sadler said the 10-year-old track reminds him of tracks in Charlotte and Texas, where he has raced well.
“So far, this season has been really consistent, but we’d like to be running even better,” said crew chief Ernie Cope. “We’re continuously bringing home the top-five finishes we need to go after this championship, but this team is capable of winning and we won’t really feel we’ve accomplished what we set out to do until we’re in victory lane.”
In the offseason, NASCAR mandated that its drivers declare in which series — Sprint Cup or the lower-tier Nationwide — they would compete for the championship. Sadler, a Cup guy for more than a decade, signed with KHI last fall. He’s glad he moved to Nationwide, and he’s not surprised NASCAR made the rule change.
“The toughest part about a Cup guy winning [the Nationwide title] is the driver is already labeled a Sprint Cup driver,” Sadler said. “In the old days, you had guys running for the Nationwide championship [then called the Busch series] and then the Cup championship, and they were never the same drivers. Now you are getting back to the sports’ roots.”
Cup drivers still can drive in the Nationwide series, but they don’t earn points. Nevertheless, Cup drivers dominate in the series. There has been one full-time Nationwide driver in victory lane this season: Stenhouse Jr., who won at Iowa on May 22.
Sadler hasn’t closed the door on Cup racing. He said he might drive in one or two races at the end of the season, but nothing is definite yet.
“I’ve been in Cup racing so long, I want to go back to be competitive,” Sadler said. “And I want to do it the right way.”