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Year in Review: Move to NNS makes Sadler a contender, but not a winner

December 27, 2011, Bill Kimm,

Move to Nationwide makes Sadler a contender, but not a winner

This past season, Elliott Sadler had just one goal -- win the Nationwide Series title.

"I have to be honest: Yes, it will be a disappointment if we don't win the Nationwide Series championship," Sadler wrote in a blog for NASCAR.COM in February. "I'm going into this season looking forward to racing in good, quality equipment and racing in the top five each and every weekend."

2011 statistics

Laps Led181
Avg. Start8.7
Avg. Finish9.8

After spending more than a decade competing full time in the Cup Series, Sadler took a step back and moved to Kevin Harvick Inc. and the Nationwide Series in an effort to be more competitive and "have fun."

When team owner Kevin Harvick and Sadler made the announcement at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2010, Sadler instantly became a favorite to win the championship -- and he nearly lived up to the lofty expectations.

Things to smile about

After a tough start in the first three races of the season, Sadler quickly found his footing in the new Nationwide car and put up four consecutive top-five finishes at Bristol, Fontana, Texas and Talladega to jump into the top five in points. A 13th at Nashville dropped Sadler to sixth, but then four more finishes of sixth or better at Richmond, Darlington, Dover and Iowa gave Sadler the points lead and he would drop no lower than second the rest of the season.

Without question, this was Sadler's best season in any series in his 15-year NASCAR career. His 12 top-fives, 24 top-10s and five poles were career highs, not only in the Nationwide Series, but any full-time season in the Cup and Truck series, as well.

This also was Sadler's best season as a qualifier. His average start was a career-high 8.7, third-best amongst Nationwide Series regulars competing for the championship. Sadler's poles at Talladega, Kentucky and Iowa led to top-five finishes and he also won the pole at Dover and Texas late in the season, although his finishes weren't as great, at 13th and ninth, respectively.

On the track, almost everything went Sadler's way ... almost.

Reasons to frown

There is one glaring omission on Sadler's 2011 resume -- a victory. No Nationwide champion has won the title without at least one victory and that may have been Sadler's downfall this season.

"There's nothing more I wanted than to bring home a win for this team," Sadler said. "I am so proud of this team. They have been with me through the ups and the downs of this season, and I couldn't be more proud to be a part of this program."

There are two moments this past season Sadler can circle as moments that destined him to second in points -- the month of July and the November Phoenix race.

Heading into the July New Hampshire race, Sadler was the points leader with a four-point edge on Reed Sorenson and a 27-point advantage on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Sadler suffered some damage at NHMS in a late-race crash that dropped him to a 12th-place finish, but he held the points lead. Then at Nashville, Sadler had his second-worst finish of the season when the No. 2's rear axle broke on pit road, forcing Sadler to the garage. The 30th-place finish dropped him to third in points.

Sadler looked to rebound at Lucas Oil Raceway and was in position to get back on track but he spun while racing with Stenhouse for second with two laps remaining. Sadler was able to avoid contact with most of the field, but Austin Dillon couldn't avoid the No. 2 and Sadler finished 16th while Stenhouse went on to finish third. In those three races, Stenhouse gained 51 points on Sadler, a deficit Sadler couldn't overcome.

But Sadler was still in contention as the series headed to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the season. Sadler was 17 points behind Stenhouse going into the race, but Jason Leffler ended any chance at the title for Sadler when Leffler ran into the back of Sadler going into Turn 3 and sending the No. 2 hard into the wall.

"I'm sure that the video shows that the No. 38 [Leffler] just ran right into the back of us," Sadler said from the garage. "Not much respect for guys running for the championship. It's very frustrating. You work all season long to put yourself in a situation, and it all goes away in a split second."

Leffler took responsibility for the crash, but the damage had been done.

* Video: Trouble at Nashville | Damage at LOR | Hopes end at Phoenix

Looking into the crystal ball

On the surface it looks like nothing will change for Sadler in 2012, but actually everything will. Sadler will still drive the No. 2; Sadler still will have Ernie Cope as his crew chief; but Sadler will have a new owner -- kind of.

Kevin Harvick Inc. has merged its Nationwide program with Richard Childress Racing, but Harvick said he plans to be "very involved" with the team. So Sadler will be with a new organization, a new owner and new equipment.

But odds are the changes will have a minimal effect on Sadler, which is bad news for the rest of the Nationwide field. Sadler came back to the Nationwide Series to find the fun in racing, and find the fun he did. He had his best season at the age of 36 and he expects to better in 2012.

His first trip to Victory Lane since 1998 shouldn't be too far away and there is no reason to think Sadler won't again be right in the thick of the championship battle.