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Hallman: Saluting Elliott Sadler, one of the good guys

August 17, 2018

NASCAR has had a good week. Kevin Harvick’s 6-year-old son Keelan put on a feel-good show by collecting the checkered flag and bouncing along in Harvick’s car en route to victory lane at Michigan International Speedway.

That was a welcome diversion from the tawdry news the previous Sunday of the arrest of NASCAR boss Brian France on DWI and drug-possession charges.

And speaking of what’s good for NASCAR, how about a nod to Elliott Sadler, who has been good for the sport for a long while.

A little after 6 a.m. Wednesday, Sadler announced on Twitter that this will be his last season of full-time racing.

Sadler, of Emporia, is one of those racers who brushed close to stardom but never quite got there.

In 438 Cup Series starts, he won three times — once driving for the Wood Brothers team with its roots in Stuart, twice driving for the Yates Racing team.

His later years as a regular on that tour were marked by lawsuits he filed — one to keep from getting replaced as a driver, another to get paid what he said he was owed. Through it all, Sadler maintained his classy demeanor, treating the legal proceedings as part of the business — no bitter name-calling.

In the second-tier Xfinity Series, Sadler has 13 wins in 383 starts. He would have several more wins if the Xfinity tour hadn’t devolved into a cherry-picking playground for Cup drivers who drop down to race with better equipment and more experienced crews.

Again, Sadler didn’t complain. He maintained his easygoing public personality.

He came ever so close to winning the 300-mile Xfinity race this past February, the most glamorous event on the Xfinity schedule. How close? He lost to Tyler Reddick by four 10-thousandths of a second. NASCAR typically doesn’t even bother to extend its electronic scoring that far past the decimal point.

He was runner-up in the Xfinity championship four seasons, and almost certainly would have been a champion if NASCAR hadn’t devised a playoff system that resets the points as the season comes to a close.

Again, Sadler kept his frustration with the system in check, though after last year’s final race he did lament that another driver held him up as he tried to charge to the front to battle for the lead and the title.

No doubt Sadler knew even then that the window was closing on his chance to be the Xfinity champion. He is 43, not exactly ancient by stock car racing standards but definitely on the downside.

There would be little to be gained by racing until he was 50. He isn’t going to get another shot on a competitive Cup team. The Xfinity Series seems to have an almost unlimited supply of good young drivers.

His team, JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., may have wanted Sadler out. It certainly must have been scoping out possible replacements.

Sadler had revealed in June that his primary sponsor, OneMain Financial, wouldn’t return in the same capacity next season, so that would have been a complicating factor had he wanted to keep racing the full schedule.

In his announcement that he was going to step back from racing full time, Sadler said the decision was his.

“It’s time for me, as a Dad, to help my kids pursue their dreams,” he w. “Wyatt is 8 and Austyn is 6 and both of them are very active in school and in extracurricular activities. I want 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.”

He thanked all the appropriate folks — family, car owners, crew members, sponsors and the like — and promised to give it all he has to win the 2018 championship.

He’s second in the points race now and is a virtual lock to make the playoffs. The odds are pretty good that he’ll be in the final four again when the tour gets to its last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in which case he’ll have one last shot at the title.

He hasn’t won this season, but he has 10 top-five finishes in 21 starts so far, including two other second-place finishes besides that February Daytona near miss. The potential to win the championship is there.

Overlooked in the news of Sadler’s planned cutback is what it could mean in terms of his off-track involvement.

In an era when many drivers have been less engaged with racing fans, less willing to help promote events, Sadler has trended the other way. At Richmond Raceway, he has been the go-to guy when the track needs a driver’s presence for a promotion.

Barely five hours after Sadler’s announcement, Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier released a statement hailing Sadler as “one of the most beloved drivers in the region” and reminding fans that he’ll be competing in the track’s Sept. 21 Xfinity playoff race.

Sadler could become a TV commentator. His on-camera ease would offer a welcome counterpoint to the hyper pace to which many former drivers seem to aspire.

Or maybe he’ll just kick back and settle in for swim meets, baseball games, spelling bees, school plays — whatever it is Wyatt and Austyn have in store for him.

There are worse things a dad can do.

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