Finally Elliott Sadler is a happy man at Talladega.
He’d won poles here. He’d run well here. He survived a terrifying crash here in 2003 when his car flew into the air, flipped twice and landed on its roof.
Finally he won here, taking the Aaron’s 312 Nationwide race in a tight last lap over rookie Chris Buescher. Regan Smith finished third.
This was Sadler’s 10th career Nationwide victory but his first at Talladega Superspeedway and his first overall since August of 2012. He’d gone 54 Nationwide starts without a victory.
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“I have such a love-hate relationship with this race track,” said Sadler, a veteran who started racing go-karts in 1983. “Every autograph session fans ask about that flip. Now they can ask me about winning.”
NASCAR stopped the race briefly with under 20 laps to go after a crash swept up five cars, including a fiery race ending for Kasey Kahne. While NASCAR cleaned up the mess on the track, Sadler fretted.
“Must have been 20 scenarios going through my head – how I’d screwed up here before,” Sadler recalled. “But I was able to make the blocks at the right time” to hold off late-race passes.
Sadler went all last season without a victory for Joe Gibbs Racing, an uncharacteristically long dry spell in his career.
“It weighed on me heavy,” Sadler said. “I’m a very competitive person. I don’t just want to drive around. I want to win.
“I did a lot of work over the winter keeping myself in shape. But it hurt the way last year was. Made for a long, hard winter.”
This was Buescher’s first top-five finish in Nationwide, but Sadler said it’s obvious the rookie has a lot of talent. Buescher was just happy to get through a superspeedway race, with all of its bump-drafting, without wrecking a car.
“It was insane to say the least,” Buescher said. “We went all the way to the back and came back up to the front and to be battling at the end was incredible.
“I got to learn a lot from good friends. David Ragan (who finished fourth) is a really good friend of mine. He helped me a lot throughout the race.”
The primary adjustment for young drivers here is the standard NASCAR sets for “bump-drafting.” You are allowed to bump cars in front of you to speed them forward, but you can’t “push” by holding constant contact with another car’s back bumper.
“I’ve never been to one of these restrictor-plate races where you’re able to make contact like that. It was absolutely crazy and very out-of-control,” Buescher said.
That can become a problem, Smith said, because drivers sometimes can’t tell if they’re attached to another car’s bumper without hitting the brakes.
“We understand the difference between a bump and a push,” Smith said. “It’s just hard to know when you go over the line.”