Elliott Sadler remains distraught about his late-race mistake last week at Phoenix that put his team in a deep hole with the Nationwide Series championship on the line Saturday.
A late-race crash dropped Sadler to a 22nd-place finish at Phoenix, enabling Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to open up a 20-point lead over Sadler in the race for the Nationwide championship. The title will be decided in Saturday’s EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I still take the blame,” Sadler said Thursday at the track. “It's one or two things that happened on the race track last week that could have really changed where we finished and how our racing points could have been different at the end of the race – a little break here, a little different line there, a little ‘not mistake’ here or there. So things could have been definitely different.
“But I look back on it as a mistake, and I talked to my team about it and could have done a better job, but I've got to come back this weekend 100 percent focused and ready to go and try to make up a really big deficit at a tough race track as far as giving up points from Ricky's side.
“It was a tough week. It's been a long week just because I felt like I put ourselves in a really big hole. We've got to have a really big weekend this weekend.”
Unfortunately for Sadler, still seeking his first NASCAR title, “very big” might not be big enough. With a 20-point lead over Sadler and a 25-point edge over third-place Austin Dillon, Stenhouse needs a finish of only 16th to win the championship no matter how high his competitors finish.
The championship would be Stenhouse’s second in a row and would close his full-time Nationwide career in style. He will move on to the Sprint Cup Series next season in the Fords Matt Kenseth is vacating at Roush Fenway Racing.
Stenhouse said preparation will be a key for Saturday’s race.
“This situation is a little different than last year,” he said. “I felt like last year mathematically it was still possible, but it was really out of reach for Elliott. This year, it’s definitely within reach. A mistake by us or a tire coming apart like you saw for Jimmie (Johnson) last week could happen – maybe something that you can’t control.
“I think my guys are really looking at everything on the race car. They double- and triple-checked it this week. They’ll do the same here this weekend. I’ll pay really close attention to the engine. I’ll pay close attention to the transmission. The guys will look for leaks.
“You kind of step up your game as far as preparation goes on the race car because that’s the last thing they want is a part failure or something to happen to the race car that we might have been able to control. As far as me, it would mean a lot to win. Just because we won last year doesn’t mean we’re not going to go for it again this year.”
Stenhouse would become the sixth driver to win back-to-back Nationwide titles, joining Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, Randy LaJoie, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
“That would be huge,” Stenhouse said. “You know, that was the goal that we set coming into this year. I think we set a few goals. We wanted to win six to 10 races, and I was hoping we were going to be closer to 10, but the six is a great accomplishment for our team.
“I think we've run a lot better. We've scored way more points than we did last year, and even going into last weekend we were tied in points. So I think it's a testament to this series and how well Elliott and his guys have run, and Austin and his guys. Seems like the level of competition has really stepped up this year, and that's really cool to see. It's been fun to be a part of.
“We're coming down to my favorite race track, so I can't think of a better place to finish it off.”
Dillon, who will be the series Rookie of the Year but is a longshot for the title, tossed in a suggestion for the drivers in front of him.
“I hope it gets nasty on Saturday personally,” he said. “I hope they door-slam each other off of turn four and I make it through the smoke.
“No, I’m actually waiting for Elliott to get back Ricky when he owes him at Richmond and Bristol (Sadler and Stenhouse have had some rough encounters) this year. I’m still trying to figure out when that’s going to happen.”
The Ford EcoBoost 300 is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.