Sadler Surprises At Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. – When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series tour rolls into the Bristol Motor Speedway, everybody – from the fans to the drivers – has come to expect the unexpected.

No offense, but there were just not a whole lot of people who thought that Elliott Sadler had a snowball’s chance of winning Sunday’s Food City 500. That’s what made his first Winston Cup victory all the more special when the 25 year-old Virginia native took the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team to victory lane for the first time since 1993.

“I was just as surprised as you guys are,” Sadler said in his post-race interview from the press box.

Sadler’s win comes in his 75th Winston Cup start and before 150,000 race fans, who witnessed the third driver this year to win his first race at NASCAR’s top level. In getting to the winner’s circle, Sadler used key pit strategy late in Sunday’s race to seemingly come from nowhere and into contention.

Running second with 70 laps to go behind leader Kevin Harvick, the door opened wide when the rookie driver had to bring the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet into the pits for an unscheduled pit stop for a flat tire. From that point on, Sadler looked like a seasoned veteran by holding off repeated challenges down the stretch from second-place finisher John Andretti, who was followed across the line by Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Gordon and Ward Burton.

Andretti's Cheerios Dodge failed to meet the minimum height requirement in post-race inspection. Although his finishing position is expected to remain intact, NASCAR will issue a penalty on Monday.

“It’s always good to get your first victory,” Sadler said. “The last 20 laps felt like 100 laps, and it was very emotional. I never thought we’d get to see victory lane this early, but there’s been a lot of hard work put in by my team. It means more to me to get the Wood Brothers back into victory lane than anything else in the world.

“These Winston Cup races are hard to win, but (crew chief) Pat Tryson made a great call to keep us out on the track there at the end. I’m so happy I don’t know what to do. I’d rather win at Bristol than anywhere else in the world.”

There was also a jubilant crew to go along with their driver.

“This is the biggest win this team has ever had,” said team co-owner Eddie Wood. “Hopefully it means we’ll be able to continue on racing for a few more years.”

Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Hamilton, Steve Park and Ricky Rudd completed the Top 10.

The winning pit call that Sadler made reference to came on Lap 370, when Tryson ordered Sadler not to pit along with the other lead lap cars, in doing so putting Sadler in the second position behind leader Kevin Harvick.

But when Harvick had a tire go flat while still in the lead, Sadler took the point and never looked back.

“It’s hard to put into words what this day means to me,” Sadler said. “Nothing will ever take the place of what I felt those last 10 laps. We had a terrible year last season and everybody knows that, but instead of making a driver change these guys stuck with me. Today when I knew I had the race won, I just started crying because it takes a lot of the pressure off me.”

Andretti, though disappointed he couldn’t make that one last pass, said he was pleased with the final results.

“Elliott did a great job there at the end,” Andretti said. “I know how exciting it is to win your first race, now I’d like find out what it feels like to win again. I ran as hard as I could, and hopefully we can keep these kinds of runs like this going. I could have got up there and hit Elliott, but I don’t like people racing me that way so I didn’t want to race him like that.

“I’m just happy to come out of Bristol with all the fenders still on the car, much less a second-place finish. I’m just real happy for Elliott and that entire team.”

Per usual for a 500-lapper on the high banks at Bristol, there were a few drivers who had tempers flaring at the end. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who made contact racing to the checkered flag for the fourth position, were the prime example. As the duo raced into the third turn, a tap from Gordon sent Stewart for a wild spin, though Stewart returned the favor after the race on pit road when he rammed into the back and turned Gordon sideways.

Naturally, Gordon said it was “just a racing deal.”

“I guess Tony didn't understand I was underneath him going down the back straightaway, but it was pretty obvious to me,” Gordon explained. “We were racing real hard and Tony slipped up racing off Turn 2 and I got underneath him, but I guess somebody didn’t tell him I was there. I did everything I could to keep from hitting him. I didn’t want it to come down to the last lap like it did, but if you’ve been working on a guy for a long time then you’re going to race them as hard as you can until the end.

“I don’t see anything wrong with what I did. I thought it was pretty clean.”

Gordon was able to take the controversy in stride when he was asked if he expected some sort of retaliation from Stewart.

“Not one bit,” Gordon joked.

Stewart was immediately taken to the NASCAR trailer for a discussion on his post-race action.

“We went in the corner on the last lap together and my spotter told me Jeff was looking low,” Stewart said. “By looking at the videotape, he was a little further than that, but I didn't see him at the door and I know that any time the roles have been reversed he is expecting me to lift. It's just racing at Bristol. It's part of the deal. The reason we ended up in the trailer is because I spun him on the pit lane and that was wrong. I could have hurt somebody, in all reality. I apologize for doing that because that wasn't right.

I've got no hard feelings against Jeff and I don't think he has any against me. We both are open-wheel racers that are stock car racers now, and we're both aggressive and we both want to win and we both want to get every spot we can get every time we're on the racetrack. We just had a meeting of the minds in the last quarter of the last lap after a 500-lap race.”

A penalty for Stewart’s post-race tangle with Gordon should be forthcoming on Monday.

Even though Dale Jarrett struggled and finished 16th, he holds onto the Winston Cup points lead by 45 over Gordon, with Marlin just 48 points behind in third.

As the laps wound to a close on Sunday, many were thinking there might be a little contact between Andretti and Sadler that might have possibly opened the door for the third-place driver to sneak through for the victory. Unfortunately for the guy in third, Jeremy Mayfield, that never happened, even though after the year he’s having a third-place effort was like a victory.

“That’s what we needed,” Mayfield said afterwards. “We had a good car all day and we’re happy with third. We finished fourth here last year and third this year, so that’s pretty good for the tough place. I’m glad Elliott got his first win and he deserves it, plus the Wood Brothers are a good team. They did a good job.”

Fifth-place Burton was another of the many drivers who left Bristol happy to see Sadler win his first Winston Cup race.

“For Elliott Sadler to win his first race here is awesome,” said Burton, a fellow Virginia native. “That’s great for his team and for him, it’s really cool.”

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to action next Sunday in the Harrah’s 500 from the Texas Motor Speedway where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending winner.

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