Elliott Sadler only knows one way to express his feeling for runner-up finishes.
The 19-year NASCAR race car driver describes his competitive nature, sounding like a wrestler when talking about falling short of a season championship.
“To be honest, finishing second sucks,” Sadler said. “I’m way too competitive. Yeah, second is better than third, better than fourth, better than fifth and all that.”
Sadler will attempt to defend his victory in the NASCAR Nationwide Series U.S. Cellular 250 Saturday at Iowa Speedway in Newton, beginning at 7 p.m. He won here last August and hopes another strong finish leads to improvement on his two straight second-place finishes in season points and first NASCAR championship. Sadler enters the race third in points, trailing leader Austin Dillon (13) and Regan Smith (7).
The 37-year-old from Virginia has 667 starts in NASCAR’s top three national series. He has 13 career wins and has earned the pole position 25 total times, leading more than 5,500 laps. Sadler said all that is cool, but playing sports most of his life the goal is getting hardware.
“It’s all about getting that trophy and last-man standing,” Sadler said. “The last two years I’ve come up one spot short and it really pulls at you.
“You want to be a champion. I want to be a champion. This is why you race. You want to win races and championships.”
Few are fueled by winning and competition than Sadler. Despite echoing what some of the state’s wrestlers have said, He was a standout basketball player and was recruited by legendary basketball coach Lefty Driesell at James Madison before injury ended his playing days. Sadler also plays on a traveling softball team, contending for titles on the diamond in addition to his racing endeavors. He is motivated to be the best – in anything.
“Whether you’re playing golf, cards or pickup basketball in the back yard, it doesn’t matter, I play to win,” Sadler said. “That’s just the way I was brought up. If you get beat, good job by the other guy. Congratulations to him, but we need to go home and figure out what we need to do to do better.”
Dillon was a teammate of Sadler for Richard Childress Racing before Sadler moved to Joe Gibbs Racing. According to Dillon, Sadler’s drive is indicative of many in the field.
“I think all the drivers are like that,” Dillon said. “That’s what makes them so successful.”
Sadler said auto racing has a different dynamic than other activities. Winning is a tough task, because you have more than one direct opponent whenever you take the track.
“There’s a lot of guys that race every weekend that want to win that race and win that championship,” Sadler said. “What’s different between us and stick-and-ball sports is there is usually one winner and one loser in stick-and-ball sports. It’s one winner and 39 losers for us, man. It’s tough being that one winner.”
Sadler has achieved plenty of success at Iowa Speedway. He has placed fifth or better in all five starts at the track. He was a runner-up in the first race of 2012 before his win. He was third in the Dupont Pioneer 250 in June. Sadler has earned the pole three times. Sadler and his team are optimistic in their return.
“It’s a really good track for me,” Sadler said. “It’s by far my best track, if you look at it statistically. We’ve been very good at Iowa. To be third in points, I can’t think of a better place to come and reboot the season a little bit and get ready for the last half.”
Sadler said some tracks fit the driver’s strength, comparing it to a golfer’s style working well on specific courses. Iowa Speedway suits Sadler well. He also credited his former KHI crew chief Ernie Cope, who provided a strong blueprint for Sadler to build on each time.
“I know what I need and what I want to be fast here,” said Sadler, praising his crew chiefs. “I can feel that. I understand what was going on and that’s what I’m looking for each and every time I come back.”
Sadler used the last Newton race as a springboard, recording five straight top-10 finishes and six in seven races including four in the top five. The season turned around as he was adjusting to a new team and car.
“The first Iowa race that we went to was by far the most important race of our season,” Sadler said. “I really felt like we all got on the same page and really learned what I want in a race car to go fast.”
The goal is to recapture the momentum he gained his last visit here. Another strong showing could propel him into the driver’s seat for the season points title. A repeat victory won’t come easy.
“We have to run a whole race and be standing at the end,” Sadler said. “It’s going to be tough. We just have to figure out how to put it all together.”