Elliott Sadler stood in a daze. Head pointed down and quiet, Sadler tried to process what he called the biggest disappointment of his career as the Xfinity Series championship slipped through his fingers late at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The JR Motorsports driver lost the title to teammate William Byron, but his anger was directed solely at Ryan Preece. Pulling down pit road after the checkered flag behind the No. 18 Toyota, Sadler ran into the back of Preece’s car and then quickly climbed out to confront him.
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“It’s very disappointing. To be that close and not win the championship is frustrating,” Sadler said. “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 to hold us down like that. Just no respect at all. Within 10 laps to go he’s not racing a soul.”
Preece was driving a car in contention for the owners’ championship, but Sadler wasn’t interested in that since Preece’s competition for that trophy – Sam Hornish of Team Penske – was over 10 seconds ahead. Sadler and Byron spent the last 100 laps in a heated battle for position and Sadler was pulling away after Byron scraped the wall.
When Sadler closed in on Preece it allowed Byron to close back in. Sadler scraped the wall as he got stuck behind Preece as Byron charged to his inside. A few laps later Sadler got into the left rear of Preece, who avoided spinning out, while Sadler hit the wall again.
Elliott Sadler makes a desperation attempt to get by Ryan Preece and it doesn’t work out! pic.twitter.com/9sA4tmXeBV
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That would be the end of Sadler’s title hunt. Byron finished third while Sadler nursed his battered car to an eighth-place finish.
“If [Preece] would have let us go and let us race, we would have won the championship,” Sadler said. “William Byron is seven or eight car lengths behind us and he won’t catch us in clean track but then I had to start battling the 18 and … I don’t understand.
“Who is he racing? I still don’t understand. Not racing one soul. The 22 [Hornish] who he’s racing for the car owners’ [title] is half a lap ahead. So, let us race fair and square. Don’t become part of the outcome.”
Sadler won the regular-season championship but finished second in the overall points for the second consecutive year and for the fourth time in the last seven years.
“I was going to lay over there,” said Preece. “I’m just doing what I’m doing for Joe [Gibbs] and Steve [de Souza], they told me to race for the owner championship. We were trying to race the 9 [Byron] and when the 9 got by me I wanted to let [Sadler] go too and let those two race at it. There’s not much to it than that.”
Preece acknowledged Sadler was mad although he wasn’t sure what had been said to him. As for what he told Sadler, Preece replied, “What more can I tell you, you know what I mean? I’m just racing for Joe. It’s what they told me to do. So, I’m just … team orders.”
Asked what that meant and if it was to race hard, Preece replied: “You can’t really say it’s racing hard. If it was the 7 [Justin Allgaier] and the 1 [Sadler] – I don’t know who else was running for that driver championship – it would have been different. But unfortunately, it was probably the worst scenario it could have been for me and that’s with the 9 [Byron] and the 1. So, unfortunately, that’s just what ended up happening.”
While Byron won the drivers’ championship, Hornish finished second to win the owners’ championship.
“This is probably, by far, the biggest disappointment in my career,” said Sadler. “You dream of days of having a championship and winning a championship and just got taken away from us. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I really wish William and I could have fought it fair and square.”