Elliott Sadler could see his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship, and then it slipped away in a matter of seconds.
Battling JR Motorsports teammate William Byron in Saturday night’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he would complete the pass for fourth with 36 laps to go, ready to set sail. He was able to stretch it out to an eight car-length gap over the run, though as the event neared conclusion, Byron began to close the gap.
The pair would catch third-place runner Ryan Preece with nine laps to go, with Sadler diving underneath the No. 18 Toyota entering turn three, but did not clear him. Instead, the No. 1 Chevrolet got loose, causing contact between the pair with Sadler brushing the wall. It was the opportunity that Byron needed, as he made the pass to take fourth and the championship.
“As long as you can hold your line and keep your momentum up, I don’t think the guys could have — no way he could have passed me, and I think when the 18 pinched me off so bad off of 2 and William got that run and cleared me into 3, I knew it would have been pretty much over with there,” Sadler said. “I mean, just the track position was very important.”
Sadler would try to pass Preece once again two laps later, but contact happened between the pair, punching a hole in the right front tire. While Preece placed third with Byron fourth, Sadler ultimately crossed the finish line in eighth.
“He just cost us a championship, and he’s not even racing anyone,” Sadler told NBCSN. “You won’t get anywhere in this sport if you race someone like that. You have to race with respect. He cost us a championship. I don’t know what to say.”
Preece was fighting for a title of his own, though, as he was trying to bring home the owner’s championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. In the end, he came up short as Sam Hornish Jr. and Team Penske won with a runner-up finish.
“I mean, really I got hired to race this race for the owner championship,” Preece said. “We weren’t anywhere near the 22 (Sam Hornish Jr.), but we were racing the 9 (William Byron). It’s pretty much what I said. If it was the 7 (Justin Allgaier) and the 1 (Elliott Sadler) or anyone else that wasn’t in for that owner championship, probably, I definitely would have just laid right over.
“I’ve been an Elliott Sadler fan growing up, so if I wanted somebody to win that owner championship or driver championship, it would have been him. Just, I cannot listen to my owner. I cannot listen to the guy who’s paying you in the end, so it’s just a tough deal. It’s crappy in the end – but I hate controversy.”
Preece went on to say that he was doing his job in making sure he beat Byron for second in the owner’s standings as the final four were JR Motorsport’s No. 9 driven by Byron, Team Penske’s No. 22 driven by Hornish, and Team Penske’s No. 18 driven by Christopher Bell. Though once Byron got by, he was willing to let Sadler go and fight for the title – and had planned on doing that when the contact happened.
“If there was no contact, I was going to let him go that corner,” he said. “I pulled down in the middle, not running the top because I was letting him go. I mean, I don’t know. The only thing I could’ve done differently was realistically given up second in the owner championship and finished third. You know, hindsight 20/20, we ended up there because of what happened, but I also – as soon as the 9 (Byron) got me, I was going to let him go.
“I don’t know much more than that I could do, other than, than layover on Joe (Gibbs) and Steve (deSouza, EVP of XFINITY and Development for Joe Gibbs Racing). If they came over the radio and said ‘hey, give up second in the owner championship and let these guys race,’ I would’ve done it. I’m just – team orders. I’m not afraid to lay over if it means – but just doing what I’m told.”
The explanation from Preece did not improve relations with Sadler, who said Preece was not racing Hornish at the time as “the 22 was a half a lap ahead of him.”
For Sadler, it marks the fourth time in the last seven years that he has finished the season as the runner-up in the standings.
“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” he said. “I’ve been racing a long time; y’all know that. But I would say tonight is the most devastating and down and out I’ve ever felt in my career.”
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