HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Elliott Sadler's despair and frustration in finishing second for the fourth time in the last seven NASCAR XFINITY Series seasons was evident on Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It was scrawled on his face. It was patently obvious when he crawled through the window of his No. 1 Chevrolet and confronted Ryan Preece, on whom he projected his anger.
The 42-year-old veteran for JR Motorsports, his 22-year career devoid of a championship in a top-three NASCAR series, was angry that Preece had impeded his way as he attempted to catch teammate William Byron while they contested the series title with nine laps to go in Turn 3.
"Tonight is the closest I've ever been to winning a championship," Sadler said. "Having the lead against [Byron], the race is in my hands to win the championship, and when I dove down into Turn 1, we'd been running behind [Preece] for 10 laps. When I dove down into [Turn] 1, I thought he was going to give it to me, and I was going to slide in front of him, and he just gassed it and pinched me down, and that was it.
"That's pretty hard to swallow. 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."
Held from Preece by three officials, Sadler made his point. Preece, he believed, had no business racing a title-contending driver the way he did. Trouble was, Preece was in fourth place, in his preferred line and trying to help his Joe Gibbs Racing team win an owners' championship at the moment Sadler failed to get past quickly enough to chase after Byron, who eventually rolled away to finish third in the race and claim his first NASCAR championship at age 19.
Sadler said the circumstances leading him to finish five points behind the champion was "very devastating to me right now to have one taken away from me like that." Sam Hornish Jr., who won the team title for Team Penske by finishing second, negated Preece's right to battle him, he said.
"He wasn't [racing for a championship] because the [Hornish Jr.] was a half a lap ahead of him," Sadler reasserted. "He wasn't racing anybody." JR Motorsports' No. 9 and JGR -- with two cars -- also entered the race eligible to win the owner championship.
Preece said he would have "laid over" or moved from Sadler's way if ordered, so the title contenders could have right of way. Byron had passed Sadler for the final time by ducking low as Sadler ran the high line. Sadler became bottled behind and had his momentum blunted.
The incident was the final stroke in a pitched contest between Byron, who will take over the No. 24 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsport in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next year and the frustrated veteran. Sadler was hustling to overtake Byron for fourth place with 38 laps left when his car got loose in the middle line causing him to glide up the track and make contact with the rear of Byron's car.
Sadler finished second in the XFINITY Series final standings -- by an excruciating two points last season -- as he was passed on a restart with three laps left by Daniel Suarez, who bore away to win the race and the title. Sadler, who finished third in the race, had led the standings for the previous 13 weeks, and finished second for the third time in five years.
Sadler was without his normal crew chief, Kevin Meendering, in that race because he was serving a penalty for loose lug nuts discovered in a post-race inspection at Phoenix Raceway.
This season he entered second in points and winless after claiming three victories last season, increasing his winless streak to 38 races.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---