Sadler, others mull plans to halt Hornish
September 20, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
SPARTA, Ky. -- The damage done was far greater than the crumpled fender and flattened right tire on Elliott Sadler's No. 11 Toyota. When Brett Butler blasted into the veteran driver last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, the most important thing dented was Sadler's championship hopes.
Sadler lost 16 points to NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader, Sam Hornish Jr., following his 19th-place performance last week. Entering Saturday's Kentucky 300 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS), he's 44 points behind Hornish and in fourth place. For perspective, Austin Dillon is second and 17 points behind Hornish; Regan Smith is third and 36 points back.
"It's hard to swallow," an introspective Sadler said Friday during a thoughtful interview. "The disappointing part is, he was a lot of laps down. I had my hand out the window to signal, and I wore white gloves for that reason -- for hand signals. He definitely put us in a hole. The disappointing part is, we didn’t get a call this week. No 'Sorry, didn’t mean to do that.' That's not really good driver etiquette, but it is what it is. It's the cards we've been dealt, and it changes our strategy for the last seven races."
Sadler's new outlook involves a radically different setup to his No. 11 SportClips Toyota, and a more aggressive approach at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, where Sadler historically performs well. Sadler was runner-up to Brad Keselowski in the first race this season at Kentucky, and he was in position to win last year before his power steering went out. In four starts, Sadler has three top-fives here, and an average finishing position of 5.2.
The only way for Sadler to catch Hornish, though, is to do things differently, more aggressively. That means a brand-new car and differing strategy -- all at a race track that could be as a green as the paint on the outside walls, given that rain Friday canceled nearly two total hours of practice time.
"What we have to do is, we have to show up and be aggressive and get all the points we can possibly get," Sadler said. "If we don't get all the points we can get, it doesn't matter what those guys do. I think the 12 (of Hornish) and the 3 (of Dillon), they're going to play off each other a lot. I think what we have to do is, we have to do the opposite. If they take four tires, we take two. If they're conservative on gas, we need to try and stretch it on gas."
The opportunity for Sadler -- and Dillon and Smith -- to catch, or at least slow, Hornish comes at a race that serves as the series' sixth and final stand-alone event of the season. The only intruders from other series are from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, which isn't racing this weekend, and not from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is in New Hampshire.
Yes, that means 'The KB Show' isn't playing in Kentucky.
Considering Kyle Busch has 10 victories in 20 Nationwide Series starts this season, the three extra bonus points that come with winning a race -- along with the momentum -- could go to either of the three drivers still hoping to catch the No. 12 team.
"It's really anyone's championship to win," Dillon said. "I've really enjoyed battling with Hornish all year, along with the other competitors. I've had some success at Kentucky in the past, so I hope I can capitalize this weekend and gain some points. Everyone has been so close all year, though, that it's going to take someone making a mistake in order for one of us to gain any points. If that happens, we will be there to capitalize."
Dillon's history at Kentucky is as rich as Sadler's, given that the driver swept the races in 2012 and finished sixth earlier this year. In three career starts here, Dillon has won the Coors Light Pole Award three times.
And if anyone can understand big points gaps shrinking quickly, it's Smith. Earlier this year, the driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet saw his lead in the standings shrink from 58 points to eight over the course of two races. His best finish at Kentucky is 16th, and his average finishing position is 12.0 in the nine races since Sadler jabbed his finger into Smith's face following an on-track incident at New Hampshire in July.
"We definitely have a lot of room for improvement from our last outing at Kentucky," Smith said of his team's 30th-place finish earlier this year. "We ran well, inside the top 10, but a mechanical issue put us pretty far behind. Luckily those type of issues are rare with … this team."
Hornish Jr. won't be easy to catch, given that he's finished in the top five in five of the past seven races, which vaulted him past Dillon into the points lead.
Sadler effusively praised the former open-wheel driver for adapting so seamlessly to NASCAR's ovals this year, all while promising that this championship is far from decided.
"That’s a hard transition to make, and I'm really impressed with how Sam's done the past year," Sadler said. "They just haven’t made any mistakes this year. So we have to bring out the latest, greatest car that we have. We designed our car to bring out this late in the year to make a real strong run these final races.
"We’re in the mindset of, let's shake it up a little bit. In my mind, if we could somehow, some way get within 20 points before we go to Texas (in November), we're right back in the middle of the this thing. It's about balancing our risk vs. reward, and we're prepared to take some risks."