TALLADEGA — For years, Elliott Sadler has been known among racing fans as the guy who went on one of the wildest rides ever at Talladega Superspeedway and just always did something to keep from winning on a big track.
Maybe now they can start talking about him as a guy who got it done.
Sadler, a veteran who celebrated his 39th birthday Wednesday, survived a lot of close racing, a late-lap shootout and held off rookie Chris Buescher in the closing stretch to win the Aaron’s 312 by a scant 0.124 seconds Saturday.
It was his 10th win in 239 Nationwide Series races, but only his first in 29 stock car starts at Talladega. In fact, he had had only four finishes inside the top 10 in 17 years coming here. He had won a couple poles in that time, of course — as recently as the 2011 and 2012 Nationwide races — but never took the checkered flag.
Until holding off Buescher, a 21-year-old Texan making his Nationwide restrictor-plate debut, Sadler was best known around here for getting airborne in the 2003 EA Sports 500 after making contact with Kurt Busch seven laps from the finish. In that incident he flipped several times and slid through the grass on his roof, but walked away uninjured.
“I’ve got such a love-hate relationship with this race track,” Sadler said. “We always run good here, but I always doggone flip or wreck or hit hard or something. Every autograph session or everywhere I go now everybody always reminds me of the flip I had down the back straightaway here a couple years ago, now dammit they can ask me about winning here.
“It was good to get that under our hat today with such a fast race car. It means a lot to me.”
The race ultimately turned into a three-lap shootout after the field was red-flagged for nine minutes because of a six-car wreck in Turn 3 that ruined the day for two of the contenders, including points leader Chase Elliott. It was during that stoppage Sadler began to have flashbacks.
“Twenty scenarios went through my head about how many times I‘ve screwed up here in the past with a good race car and not being able to finish it off,” he said. “(I was) blocking the wrong lane, going at the wrong time, going in the wrong lane. … I took all the experience of me messing up in the past to good use.”
Actually, all of the major incidents of the race occurred near the front with the drivers racing for the lead. In each case, several of the drivers who fell victim to the wrecks blamed the “stupidity” of others for their fate.
When the race resumed, Sadler and Buescher started side-by-side up front, with David Ragan and Regan Smith side-by-side on their bumpers. Sadler nudged out front in the final run to the flag and made several blocks to maintain the lead. In the closing stretch, Ragan moved over to block Buescher from making a final pass.
The race featured 86 green-flag passes for the lead, which was the second most on the series in the last seven years and third-most in the last 10.
“I guess I didn’t realize we did break away four cars like that,” Buescher said. “With the 7 (Smith) behind us it was probably just a big cube coming down the backstretch. We were all holding each other as tight as possible. The 7 was pushing me like crazy. We probably hit 12 times going down the backstretch, just big pushes.
“I tried really hard to hold Elliott down, but this is kind of new to me, and I don’t have all the speed secrets down yet. We didn’t have that last 100-foot pass, but it was a good finish.”
Smith finished third, Ragan fourth and pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr. fifth. Elliott started 37th, led with seven laps to go and finished 19th, but maintained his series points lead — by one point over Sadler and three over Smith.
“I’ve been trying to win a doggone speedway race for a long time,” Sadler said. “I’ve won a couple Duel races in Daytona. I made one bad move in 2009 when I lost the Daytona 500 in the last 10 seconds and it started raining and Matt Kenseth won. That move still haunts me to this day.
“I felt like I’ve been close. I feel like I’m a pretty good restrictor-plate driver, and I feel like I have one of the best spotters in restrictor-plate racing. He deserves this win just as much or more than I do. This win ranks up there. Everybody wants to win a speedway race, so to be able to hold people off felt good those last couple laps.”