It took a full 30 minutes after completion of Saturday night’s Ticket Galaxy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, but finally Elliott Sadler could breath a sigh of relief that he definitely was going to get to race for the 2016 XFINITY Series championship next Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Unfortunately, he will do so without the services of his usual crew chief, Kevin Meendering, who was suspended for the Homestead race after conclusion of Saturday’s Phoenix event.
Sadler thought he was easily in with a 10-point cushion after finishing 13th in Saturday’s race. But as he pulled up to pit road, NASCAR officials swarmed around his No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, where they ultimately discovered two loose lug nuts on the left-rear wheel.
After NASCAR officials huddled for the next 30 minutes, it was announced that Sadler’s team would suffer a "large fine" and a one-race suspension, to be served immediately, of Meendering.
"Elliott will have to be racing at Homestead with a substitute crew chief. That’s what the rulebook says. Two loose lug nuts off a large fine and a crew-chief suspension for one race," said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. "So that’s the situation we’re in right now going to Homestead."
Sadler’s team already had been fined $10,000 for having one loose lug nut discovered at the end of the previous week’s XFINITY race at Texas.
Sadler — who has won three races this season and has been the series points leader since the end of July, including throughout the first nine races of the Chase playoffs, admitted Meendering would be sorely missed but expressed optimism that someone could step up to replace him for the most important race of the season.
"It’s not a secret, Kevin Meendering has made me a hero this year and put a lot of great race cars under me," Sadler said. "But we’ve got a lot of depth at JR Motorsports and those guys will rally around us to go to Homestead, I’m sure. I’m still very blessed to be in this situation. We’ve done a lot of great things this season and have one race (left) that we need to capitalize on.
"Kevin will be missed, but he’s got a lot of good guys under him who have been watching everything we do week in and week out. … I’ve got a lot of experience and I need to rely on that. I need to be a good leader and a good quarterback and do my job next week."
Sadler joked that his boss at JR Motorsports might even be considered the one-off crew chief job.
"Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., he’s coming out of retirement," said Sadler, laughing.
On a more serious note, Sadler then confirmed that the team may consider moving Ryan Pemberton, a former crew chief who now serves at the director of competition at JR Motorsports, to the top of his pit box for the Homestead race.
"Whoever Kevin wants to handle it is fine. I can work with anybody," Sadler said. "I’ll let those guys figure out who they want on the box to make the calls."