Where will Elliott Sadler Drive Next Year?
Yesterday, according to Dustin Long, Richard Petty announced that his organization would be running a two-car operation in 2011 "unless sponsorship fell from the sky."
With Marcos Ambrose signed (Stanley Tools) and A.J. Allmendinger under contract as well (Petty also stated they were in the final stages of negotiations with Best Buy Racing for that ride), it means that Elliott Sadler is the odd man out at RPM.
Sadler has repeatedly stated that he is amenable to driving in a competitive Nationwide or Camping World Truck series ride for 2011, rather than a start-and-park operation in Cup. Kevin Harvick Inc. is a leading contender, as Sadler has run several successful races for KHI in both the NNS No. 33 and CWTS No. 2.
The point of this article is not to write whether or not that such a move is good or bad for RPM or Sadler, whether it was a wise decision on RPM's part, or what it says about the state of the sport.
I want to tell you what I learned about Elliott Sadler through my personal experiences as a close fan, so that you might have a peek into what we would all be missing.
During my second year-long deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mech.), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch NASCAR races (often in the wee hours of the morning) as an escape from the IED-filled patrols and weekly mortar attacks on our local Camp Rustamiyah in southeast Baghdad.
I often heard Elliott speak out in support of the troops during pre- or postrace interviews. I agonized as I watched Mark Martin edge him in the 2005 All-Star race by less than half a second.
The agony was even more palpable when a tough stretch (including being wrecked by Jimmie Johnson and, uncharacteristically, Martin) left him in 11th place when the "Race to the Chase" ended, just one spot out (they only took 10 drivers in 2005).
Sadler doesn't just "talk" about the troops.
His charitable actions are often directed at active-duty soldiers and veterans. So, when I returned in January 2006, I did what I thought any polite person should do—I said "thank you."
That was it, really.
It was just an email to let him know that the mere words from him and other drivers truly did boost morale and help us get through a difficult time in Iraq.
His spotter, Brett Griffin, saw the email and passed it on to then-sponsor M & M's, as well as Elliott himself.
He gave me and my wife the experience of a lifetime.
With "hot passes" at Darlington Raceway, we were given tours, merchandise, a visit with Elliott both at his hauler and his motor home, a chance to see the then-Busch Series and Cup race from the pit box, and more.
I had never experienced anything like it, and probably never will again.
Kasey Kahne looked like a deer in headlights as he was mobbed by young and middle-aged women alike. Heck, I even missed getting a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. autograph (he was walking alone—really) because I was too busy spilling mustard on my shirt from an infield hot dog. The late Benny Parsons signed my program with a smile and a kind word.
During the conversations I had with Sadler, I learned that he was just as down-to-earth and genuine as he seemed on television, a kind-hearted and fun-loving man who just wanted little else but to be competitive and truly enjoy racing without all of NASCAR's politics and drama.
Griffin, too, is a gritty Southerner, a proud South Carolina Gamecock, and an asset to both NASCAR and Sadler's fans. Listen to him on the scanner (or follow him on Twitter) at your own risk; he calls it as he sees it, with no political correctness attached.
I soon learned that my personal experience was just typical Elliott Sadler; he gave back to all of his fans. I attended two "Barn Parties" literally on the front lawn of his own family's property in Emporia, VA. He invited around a thousand members of his fan club to listen to Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Bucky Covington, and others, as he offered the opportunity for autographs from Kasey Kahne, Dale Jarrett, and others.
You could even take a tour of the property, getting a close-up look at the dozens of hunting dogs that assisted Sadler in his favorite pastime.
Could you imagine Chad Ochocinco, Sidney Crosby, Kobe Bryant, or Derek Jeter inviting you over for a concert and bologna burgers on their front lawn?
NASCAR, with the demands of sponsorship in tough economic times and the fickle nature of both fans and owners, can be a cruel sport, to say the least.
Sadler is happily married with a sweet baby boy, Wyatt. He is a popular driver and seems to have an eventual future in NASCAR broadcasting.
He connects with people in a way that makes him feel like a friend, even if he doesn't really know you. He is generous, compassionate, and dedicated.
Elliott Sadler has clearly demonstrated that whether or not he ever even runs another Cup race, he is already a proven winner in what truly counts.