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Elliott Sadler is 24 points from the top of the Nationwide Series standings and feels like he should be a whole lot closer, but an incident in the closing laps with points leader Regan Smith as they battled for third position at New Hampshire last week relegated him to an 18th-place finish and resigned him to his current position.
Not to worry, Sadler said. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing team aren't points racing, anyway. Wins are the goal and the realistic expectation, and a few of them would put him where he wants to be -- holding a NASCAR championship trophy for the first time -- when the season culminates at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
|Elliott Sadler is the defending race winner at Chicagoland Speedway.|
The 2011 and 2012 Nationwide runner-up is still a little irked with Smith, he admits, although they hashed through their differences this week. But that million dollars he could have competed for in the Dash 4 Cash ... that's not coming back.
ESPN.com spoke with the 38-year-old NASCAR veteran as he readied for this weekend's race at Chicagoland Speedway, where he is the defending winner and has excelled the past two years in NASCAR's top developmental series.
Q: You have one top-10 and an average finish of 22.5 in 10 Sprint Cup races at Chicago (with the Wood Brothers, Yates Racing, and Evernham, Gillett Evernham and Richard Petty), and a win and three top-10s in four Nationwide races there since returning to the series full-time in 2011. Why?
A: Way better team. The last few years when I was at [Kevin Harvick Inc.] and [Richard Childress Racing] last year, they did a really good job of giving me great equipment there. It's not like I woke up one morning and figured out how to drive that track. I have to give all the credit to them.
Q: You're winless this season but had five straight top-10s until last week. Does a first win vault you into the title mix?
A: We feel good about our team. You never feel good about losing points anywhere. Of course, we lost some points last week we feel like we should have had. That put us in a little bit of a hole, but there's a whole lot of racing left to do, man. Lots of races, lots of places to go, a lot of laps between now and Homestead, and we feel our team right now is as strong as it can be and we're getting better. We feel like we're getting to some tracks where we can make up some points on these guys. We're going to Chicago with one thing in mind: winning the race. We're going to Indy with one thing in mind: winning the race. We tested there a few weeks ago and were very, very fast. We're 20-some points behind, but there's a lot of races left. We're not really points racing. We want to win the races. We've been very impressive lately and that's been working out for us pretty good.
Q: As much as New Hampshire was frustrating, is it less so when you're highly competitive and wrecked than slow and trying to figure out why?
A: It was good to run that good last week. That's probably my weakest track, to be honest with you. We could easily have come in third. What stinks about it most is we should have won the Dash 4 Cash money and been eligible for next week and be eligible for the million dollars. That was frustrating.
Q: Have you and Regan Smith reconciled?
A: We've already talked this week about it and he understands where I stand, and we'll leave it at that. If you look at the video, the video says it all. I go in the corner and I actually take a right and go up the track to get away from him and he still wrecks me. The reason I was so mad was, one, he took us out of the running, but two, I gave him a huge break at Iowa. I mean a huge break. I mean, I could have put him three-wide or wrecked him because he came down and I slammed on the brakes not to wreck him and he did not repay the favor at all as far as racing. So that's why I am mad. I was born and raised where you race each other how you want to be raced. And I know Regan's probably never run for a championship before. I understand that. But he understands, and he knows what I'm saying, and he understands why I am mad and we'll move on from it.
Q: Will someone break from the pack at the end of the season or will it be a group going for the title?
A: I think some teams run better than others and some are consistent at staying out of trouble. I think by the time we get to Homestead it will be two or three guys, probably three guys by the end who will be close enough. [Teammate] Brian Vickers [sixth place, 46 points out] is definitely making up ground, going to be fast between now and then, and Sam Hornish Jr. [second place, five points out] has been very fast at a lot of places he's been. He's probably got the most speed out of everybody. Some of those other guys have been consistent, too. It's hard to separate out anybody by the time we get to Homestead, but I think it will be down to two or three teams by then.
Q: Do you consider yourself in that group?
A: I think we've been running good. We've got a bunch of top-5s [six] and bunch of top-10s [10, in 17 races] and we've been running good and we've come from a long way back. I think I was down  points [after 11 races], got within 14 or 15 and should have got within single digits. I feel confident our team will be strong from here on out. There's only a few wild-card races from here on out, so we feel good about our chances.
Q: Will you be back with JGR in 2014? Do you want to return to Sprint Cup?
A: I don't know where I'm going to be. I should be there, but I'm not worrying about that right now, to be honest with you. I haven't really thought about it. I love it where I'm at. [Team president] J.D. and Coach Gibbs are just pretty great people and good family guys and have really treated me well. I think when the time comes and if anything comes up, we will worry about it then and cross that bridge. Right now, it's just about getting that 11 car up where it deserves to be.