[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”235″][/media-credit]Two weeks ago in Bristol Elliott Sadler, after disappointingly finishing fifth following bump-and-run from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., declared that the fight for the Nationwide Series championship was on. From his point of view, the two would race each other differently, no holds barred as the season started to wind down.
Following 250 laps in Richmond on Friday night, the fight for the championship is without a doubt, on. Stenhouse nearly won again in what would have been his second in as many weeks. Sadler snatched a top five finish from himself, but still recovered in a championship-like fashion. The two have now distance themselves from the other contenders, third place Austin Dillon is 30 points behind, as they head into Chicago separated by just one point.
A second place finish for Stenhouse, after leading 65 laps, helped his cause. He continues to fight back into contention after having lost the point lead after three bad weeks in May. The defending NNS champion is no longer in striking distance, he’s breathing on Sadler’s neck and whispering in his ear.
“We weren’t as good as we thought were going to be or thought we needed to be. We kept working on it all night and I felt like Mike [Kelley, crew chief] and the guys did some good adjustments and got it better throughout the race but not enough to go contend for the win,” said Stenhouse after picking up his 11th top three finish of the year.
“It was a great night for us and were just too loose in and too loose off and not exactly what we wanted. It is a good top-two finish though and that is three good races in a row. We just have to keep doing that.”
Sadler won’t and isn’t intimidated. He’s on a mission to win a championship not only for himself but those who helped turn his career around before he moves on in 2013. No confirmation has been made but rumors are rampant that he’s head to the NNS program of JGR. The same goes for Stenhouse, who gets a full-time Cup ride with Roush, leaving behind the NNS.
On Friday the two were fighting for the lead when Sadler spun himself out, damaging the rear of his Chevrolet.
“It’s frustrating. I made a big mistake, got in there a little too loose under Ricky,” said Sadler. “We had a fast racecar. This OneMain Financial car, 100-year anniversary, guys did a good job. This has been a really good car for us this year and we were in a good position to win the race I just got a little too impatient. Got a little too hard in over my head.”
But in a positive, “We’re still out of it though, we’ve got eight more races left, we’re still in the points lead and we’ll go get ‘em at Chicago.”
After frantically pitting numerous times and managing to stay just one lap down, he put himself in position to get it back. Instead of finishing outside the top 15, he earned a 12th place finish. Hanging onto the point lead when it could have turned into a big deficient. Stenhouse apologized for the incident, noting it was just hard racing and that he had given Sadler plenty of room.
But just as it was a few weeks ago in Bristol, Sadler was upset. This time with himself for making a mistake and not leaving with a finish he deserved. Making this weekend’s race in Chicago coming at just the right time.
“I hate that we had this kind of day for the OneMain Financial. These guys worked so hard all day long and I know that we had a car to compete for the win today,” a dejected Sadler said, while trying to look forward.
“That’s racing, but these guys never quit. I feel like I let the team down, but we are all hungry and have no other choice but to get back up and fight. I’ve said it several times this season, but these are the races and circumstances that make a championship team.
“We will regroup, get more fired up and head to Chicagoland Speedway next weekend.”
At the speedway’s first race this year it was Sadler in Victory Lane. And after seeing his point nearly disappear, he needs to get back there. Except, Stenhouse led the most laps and finished second in that race. The two have been inseparable all year; the racing has been close and exciting. More of what can be expected as the season draws to a close.
“The racing is great right now. There are a lot of people that can win and a lot of great competition, great equipment and great drivers,” feels Stenhouse. “We race hard every week and try to give a little room at the beginning. Once you fill up with fuel and are good to go at the end, you race as hard as you can and try to keep every position you can.
“I think that will continue through the rest of the year and that is how racing should be. You shouldn’t go ride around, you should race as hard as you can.”