|DIBENNEDETTO NASCAR'S ROCKY BALBOA
|FROM JOURNEYMAN DRIVER TO HALL OF FAMER
|WINNERS NOT ADDING UP
|THE 600 IS STILL A CROWN JEWEL
|NEXT TWO WEEKS COULD BE TOO GOOD
|WALTRIP A TWO-WAY HALL OF FAMER
ALWAYS WEARING A BIG SMILE AND THE WHITE HAT
I wasn't surprised by Elliott's Sadler's decision to retire from full-time racing. I wasn't surprised by his reasoning. And I wasn't surprised by the outpouring of support for one of the most likable drivers who ever strapped on a helmet.
To the fans, his teams, competitors, and the media Sadler was always a good guy. So, no one was shocked when he said it was time, at age 43, to put his family first, saying in part he had been selfish long enough, and his racing career needed to take a back seat. "It's time for me, as a Dad, to help pursue their dreams. Wyatt is 8 and Austyn is 6 and both of them are very active at school and in extracurricular activities. I was to be with them for all of their special moments. I want to be there to hug them when they do well and dust them off and send them back out there when they fall. It's time for me to be the full-time Dad that I want to be."
"A big part of my decision was, I'm not going to lie, this year missing my kid's all-star games, making it through the district's making it to state's I felt horrible. I was at the race track and I was miserable to miss all that."
Even after all those years of rounding corners, Sadler had reached a turning point. "As a person, and as a dad, I just think it's time to move on to the next chapter in my life. I love being around my wife and kids," he explained. "I love being called Coach Elliott, so it's cool that I've already got another job."
Sadler made his Xfinity Series debut in 1995 at South Boston Speedway and I was there that night, witnessing Chad Little win and Sadler come home eighth in his debut. He won five races during 1997 and 1998, parlaying that into 12 full-time seasons on the Monster Energy Cup Series. He won his first race on NASCAR's top circuit in 2001 with a brilliant drive at Bristol, where he grabbed the checkered flag after starting 38th and is still a track record. His best season in Cup, however, came in 2004 as the wheelman for Hall of Fame owner Robert Yates when he won twice, at Texas and Fontana, along with notching eight top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes.
I thought that year would be a launching pad to bigger and better things on the Cup circuit for Sadler, but, for whatever reason, that didn't happen. He went winless the next six seasons, finding himself moving back to the Xfinity Series in 2011 to begin his dogged pursuit of a title that has agonizingly eluded him. Five times in the previous seven seasons he wound up second in the championship battle with the cruelest cut of all, perhaps, last season when it was within his grasp in the closing laps at Homestead only to have it slip through his fingers and wind up in the hands of JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.
"I definitely want to win a championship, that's what I have strived for my whole career. We have come really close," admitted Sadler. "Win, lose, or draw, we'll put our best foot forward. If we don't win a championship, it will bother me, there will be some sleepless nights. But aside from that, it's more important for me to be involved in what my kids are doing than it is to keep pursuing my own dreams."
Sadler's had a long career with a number of highlights. He's one of a select few drivers who've won on all three of NASCAR's top series. To go with 438 Cup starts and three wins, he's made 384 Xfinity Series appearances, garnering 13 victories, and ran 20 Camping World Truck races with a single trip to victory lane.
He's also endured overdoses of disappointments. Yet, you almost always found him with a giant grin on his face. Sadler enjoyed being around the racing community and genuinely felt blessed by his NASCAR career and he acted that way. I can't ever remember him turning down an interview request or someone who wanted an autograph. He's someone the younger drivers in the sport could look up to, could emulate, as always respectful and decent. Sadler couldn't have been a better role model.
Elliott got that from his mom and dad. I got to know them back in the early days of his career and they were two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. My fondest memory of his mom Bell was during qualifying one day at Talladega a long time ago. She was anxious Elliott hadn't run fast enough to make the race and I kept reassuring her he was going to make it. It might be close, but he was going to make it. I know she wanted to believe me, but she kept coming back to the board Benny Parsons and I had set-up for a radio show we did on qualifying for the old WFMX in Statesville, NC and when it was official, he was in, the look of immense relief, the kind only a mother can show, was something I've never forgotten.
So, when this year's final race at Homestead is over, I can picture Elliott riding off into the sunset on a white horse, with a white hat and a big smile. After all, like the heroes in the old westerns, that's what all the good guys do right?