Elliott Sadler had stewed all winter about his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
No wins. No poles. Declines in nearly every positive statistical category from his last Nationwide Series season with Richard Childress Racing. A summer fade from second in the standings to fourth, marking the first time since his full-time return to the series in 2011 that he didn't finish as runner-up. All that unrealized potential with one of the most successful teams in the series.
The 39-year-old former Sprint Cup veteran continued making amends on Saturday, and at an unlikely venue, winning for the first time in 29 total attempts at Talladega Superspeedway. His first victory for JGR even pulled Sadler within one point of standings-leading rookie Chase Elliott.
Things seem much better this spring.
"When you come to a new place and you're running for such a respectable man and person and owner, like Joe Gibbs Racing, and you're not able to give back to them and not go to Victory Lane and not really run for the championship as strong as you want to, it weighed on me heavy," Sadler said. "Dude, I'm competitive as hell and I don't want to just ride around. I want to race and race for wins and run up front, and today to be able to go to Victory Lane and [team owner Joe Gibbs] call me on the phone was amazing to me."
Sadler, a runner-up at Darlington in the No. 11 Toyota, has finished worse than sixth just once in the past five races.
"We've run good here the last couple weeks," he said. "We were really fast at Richmond and got spun out [finishing sixth]. Ran really good at Darlington and we were fast as hell today. But, it feels really good to put it all together."
Rookie Chris Buescher scored his best career finish -- second -- on Saturday at Talladega. It was, he admitted, "insane, to say the least," even though he was surrounded by buddies moving him to the front.
Starting eighth in his first restrictor-plate race after failing to qualify for Roush-Fenway Racing at Daytona in February, he produced his first top-5 in 17 starts over parts of three seasons.
"We went all the way to the back and came back up to the front, and to be battling at the end was incredible," he said. "I got to learn a lot from good friends. David Ragan is a really good friend of mine. He helped me a lot throughout the race and the way we lined up there at the end Regan Smith said that he would push me as hard as he could. And, sure enough, I've never been to one of these restrictor-plate races where you've been able to make contact like that and it was absolutely crazy and very out of control, but a whole lot of fun."
Frugal fun. Even missing a race, Buescher is ninth in the driver standings, just 15 points behind his cousin, RAB Racing's James Buescher. In 18th place and 172 points off the lead, Mike Wallace is the next-highest full-time driver who has run less than the full nine-race schedule.
Sam Hornish Jr.'s debut in JGR's No. 54 Toyota was efficient enough, ending with a fifth-place finish that protected the car's 36-point lead in the owner standings. Hornish, the 2013 series runner-up, contesting a seven-race schedule for JGR, began his tenure there by winning his sixth Nationwide pole and putting himself in position for a strong finish despite what he described as "a lot of ups and downs," including stalling the car exiting the pits.
"To get out of here with a top-5 and this be our first race together, I'll take it because it could have been a lot worse," Hornish said. "I wanted it to be a little bit better, but this is the first I think of the restrictor-plate races I've run at Talladega where I brought the car home as clean as I have."
Hornish will race the No. 54 again at Iowa Speedway on May 18, attempting to continue its streak of seven consecutive top-5 finishes.
Still working on filling out his 2014 schedule, Hornish hopes to expand his role at JGR. He was utilized as a replacement driver for JGR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin earlier this year when Hamlin was not medically cleared to race at Auto Club Speedway because of an eye injury.
Get to know Newton
The denizens and business community of Newton, Iowa, home of NASCAR-owned Iowa Speedway, want to make it clear that they are not residents of a Des Moines suburb. So much so, the city obtained title rights and rebranded the upcoming Nationwide race there the "Get to Know Newton 250."
Fans will make their own decisions about actually getting to know the town of about 15,000 or breezing back to Des Moines for dinner and lodging, but the video accompanying the ad campaign is so superbly Parks and Recreation, you owe them a watch at least. Enjoy.
Nuts and bolts
There have been seven winners in the first nine races, with rookie Chase Elliot (Texas, Darlington) and Kyle Busch (Phoenix, Bristol) the only drivers to claim two.
Nine different pole winners ties the 1998 record for most through nine races.
Fifty-five drivers have led, with an average of 6.1 per race.
Average margin of victory: 0.91 seconds (closest: 0.013 at Daytona).
Rookie Chase Elliott's average finish of 7.444 is the eighth-best in series history through nine events.
Rookie Chase Elliott became the youngest (18 years, 4 months, 7 days) to lead the series in driver points after winning at Texas.