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Spotlight: For Stenhouse, Sadler, Lucas Oil Raceway sticks out

November 16, 2011, Mark Aumann,

For Stenhouse, Sadler, Lucas Oil Raceway sticks out, but for different reasons

Race car drivers share at least one thing in common with fishermen. No matter how many they seem to catch, the stories always revolve around the ones that got away.

And that was never more evident than in this season's Nationwide Series championship battle between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler. Both drivers felt like a sure opportunity was lost in the season's 21st race, in the Kroger 200 at Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis.

Area 51

In a three-race stretch through New Hamphire, Nashville and Lucas Oil, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. outpointed Elliott Sadler by 51.

For Stenhouse, it was a matter of a win that got away. For Sadler, late-race contact cost him a sure top-five finish and continued a month-long stretch that left him in a prolonged but ultimately futile pursuit. That was the theme of Sadler's year, right from his 38th-place finish in the season opener.

"At Daytona, we started off in a hole," Sadler said. "And we made our way back to the top and led the points for a little bit. And then we broke a rear end at Nashville and took a 30th-place finish there. Then [we had] the realignment issues at [LOR] and Loudon. You put those three races together in a month span, and the next thing you know, you're digging out of a hole again."

For much of the summer, nobody seemed to be able to take control of the points lead. It turned into a four-way battle between Stenhouse, Sadler, Reed Sorenson and Justin Allgaier. But no one seemed to want to put together the consistency needed to separate from the others.

Stenhouse admitted he never felt like he could gain traction in the battle for the championship because every good race seemed to be followed by a bad one, and vice versa.

"I don't think there [was] any one race track where we were like, 'Oh, this is where we are going to start going forward from here,' " Stenhouse said. "You always look back and some of the fuel mileage races that we lost points at, we go back and look at those and dwell on them for a little bit but it [was] a collective year.

"I think the main thing we have done this year is that when we have those bad races, we bounced back the next week with a top-five. I think that has been the key."

It was at Lucas Oil Raceway where the fortunes of the two main contenders went in different directions, in a figurative and literal sense.

Stenhouse had led all but eight of the first 198 laps, but failed to close the deal on a restart with two laps remaining. After being passed by Brad Keselowski, Stenhouse scraped the outside wall and then made minimal contact with Sadler, who was running third.

The two went side-by-side into Turn 3, where Sadler got loose and spun, and was collected by Austin Dillon. Sadler wound up losing a lap after making repairs and finished 16th. It capped a three-race stretch for Sadler which included a 12th at New Hampshire -- where he had another late-race incident -- and a mechanical failure which led to a 30th-place finish at Nashville.

In the Draft

Elliott Sadler has a new daughter to go along with a young son to occupy his time between the Homestead finale and Daytona 2012.

* Lucas Oil Raceway: Recap | Results | Final Laps | Sadler wrecks

"The two biggest races of the year that put us in this situation and hurt our momentum were the realignment issues at Loudon and [LOR]," Sadler said. "We were on the short end of the stick, big time, and it cost us 20 points between two races. Those were points we couldn't get back.

"It wasn't our fault, it wasn't nothing we did wrong. That's tough. That's hard to swallow. And that's one of the big reasons why we were in the hole we were in. If things were a little bit different in those two races, it would have been a little bit different championship chase."

Stenhouse knew he had given away the victory because of a bad restart. And even though he won two thrilling races at Iowa, that's the one race that perturbs him most heading into Homestead.

"Probably the [most] disappointing moment [was] when we led 192 laps of 200 at Indy," Stenhouse said. "The Iowa races will stand out for sure as [two] of the great races that we have had, but the one that always keeps sticking in the back of my mind when I think about the season is the one at Indy that we let get away."

Since Indianapolis, Sadler's strategy has been one of trying to cut into Stenhouse's lead, or at least stay within striking distance. That seemed to work up until Texas, when a late-race tire change caused the handling of his car to change dramatically, resulting in a ninth-place finish.

"For the last month, we've tried to be more aggressive as a race team," Sadler said. "We've tried to take a little more chances. We left some points on the table at Texas."

And Sadler's last hopes at the title were dashed at Phoenix, when he was tapped from behind by Jason Leffler and sent spinning hard into the wall (watch). Sadler now trails Stenhouse by 41 points -- and only the oddest of occurrences will keep Stenhouse from capturing the championship.

Note: Stenhouse will clinch the championship with a finish of 37th or better at Homestead; or 38th or better with at least one lap led; or 39th or better with the most laps led.

* Spotlight Video: Contenders break it down