Elliott Sadler, Ryan Preece separated by officials after intense on-track battle

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Elliott Sadler’s range of emotions spanned rage and dejection Saturday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the dreams of achieving a long-anticipated NASCAR XFINITY Series championship dashed.

It boiled over on pit road after Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300, with Sadler’s ire directed at part-time XFINITY competitor Ryan Preece, a third party in Sadler’s battle with JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.

The 19-year-old Byron got the better of their three-way scrap, rolling to a third-place finish and his first series championship as a rookie. Preece held on for fifth after making contact with Sadler in the final 10 laps. Sadler’s straw was shortest; the collision and his ensuing scrape with the outside wall left him with an eighth-place finish, his No. 1 Chevrolet limping under the checkered flag with a flat tire.

FINAL LAPS: Byron’s pass of Sadler, more crucial moments

A frustrated Sadler bumped into Preece’s parked Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota on pit road after the race. As Preece offered a “what gives” expression, Sadler quickly dismounted and exchanged pointed words with his rival as NASCAR officials separated the two.

“It’s just very disappointing, man, to be that close and to not win a championship is frustrating,” Sadler said after composing himself. “I don’t have many years left and I wanted to try to fulfill a childhood dream and I didn’t know it was going to come down to a guy that’s not even racing for anything holding us down like that.

“I just … no respect at all. Within 10 laps to go, he’s not racing a soul. Anyway, just the way it ended up.”

Sadler’s primary contention was that the stakes for himself and Byron in the season finale were far greater than his own incentives. Preece, a Modified hotshot whose moxie and talent have afforded him a part-time XFINITY opportunity with JGR this season and next, was racing among the top five, mindful of where his No. 18 team stood in the team owners’ standings. His group — which has fielded multiple drivers this season — wound up third, just two points behind JRM’s No. 9 (Byron) and three behind Team Penske’s title-winning No. 22 (multiple drivers, most recently Sam Hornish Jr.).

Preece said he was cognizant of both the motivation and the speed from Byron and Sadler, and had intended to let them by before Sadler’s final aggressive move. He added that if team principals had ordered him to let Byron and Sadler past in the closing laps, he would have complied.

“What can I tell you? I’m just racing for Joe (Gibbs),” Preece said. “That’s what they told me to do. Just … team orders.”

That explanation didn’t sit well with Sadler, who repeatedly asked Preece, “Who are you racing?!” in their post-race confrontation. It also left Sadler — a 42-year-old veteran who has finished second in the championship hunt four times, all in the last seven years — to field post-race questions about whether he was destined to end his career without a title.

“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” Sadler said, calling this season his closest blush with the series crown. “I’ve been racing a long time; y’all know that. But I would say tonight is the most devastating and down and out I’ve ever felt in my career.”