HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Elliott Sadler raced in NASCAR's inaugural Chase, competing with Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield and Jimmie Johnson for a shot at the championship.
Twelve years later, Sadler is back in another first-year Chase, this time in the second-tier Xfinity Series. He is still searching for the first championship of his NASCAR career.
Sadler has bounced around teams, series, suffered through lengthy winless droughts and won races over three decades. It's been a long road for the journeyman driver to his best Xfinity ride, driving for buddy Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and poised to bust through Saturday and win the series championship.
Sadler, one of the more popular drivers in the garage, needs to hold off JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones. It's winner take all on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway to crown the 2016 champion.
Sadler is ready for his moment.
"I don't look at things as now or never," Sadler said. "If I did, I would have quit a long time ago."
Sadler had his share of good days at the Cup level, beginning with his 2001 victory at Bristol driving for Wood Brothers. It led him to a ride at Robert Yates Racing and a breakthrough season in 2004, when he won two races, earned a spot in the inaugural Chase for the championship and finished a career-best ninth in points. Sadler was socked with ownership and sponsorship woes in the ensuing years — he once threatened to sue to stay in the car when the team tried to dump him.
He hasn't won a Cup race since 2004 and made only a combined six starts the last two years.
"I went through a time in my career I could have easily got pushed to the side and never been able to race again," Elliott said. "To kind of battle back, put ourselves in this position again means a lot to me and my family. We want to go make the most of it."
Sadler underwent a career renaissance in his first season driving for JR Motorsports. He won three races, has 13 top-fives and can take home the title he nearly won twice before (he was series runner-up in 2011 and 2012).
Sadler's crew chief Kevin Meendering was suspended for the finale for a lug nut violation at Phoenix International Raceway. Mike Bumgarner will call the shots atop the pit box with a championship at stake.
"It's all on me, my shoulders," Sadler said. "I'm the quarterback, I'm the leader of the team. I know that Mike is going to feed off of me and follow my lead."
Sadler also wants to win one for mom. Sadler's mother has fought breast cancer since 2009 and was recently hospitalized with a gallbladder issue.
"She came by to visit me (Wednesday) night to send me off on my way before I came down," Sadler said. "She's back to her old ways. She wants her son to be focused. That's her text message I get before every race: Stay focused."
Here are other things to watch as JGR takes on JR Motorsports for the biggest prize in the Xfinity Series:
Suarez became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR national race in June at Michigan.
Even though Suarez is part of just a small group of Latinos to find success in NASCAR, it seems as though he's been preparing for a career in racing his entire life.
Suarez, 24, grew up around cars in Monterrey, learning the ins and outs of racing hanging out in his father's car restoration shop. Suarez began racing when he was 11, and by the time he was a teenager it was clear he had a future in the sport.
Suarez landed a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series in 2015 with Joe Gibbs Racing. He has two wins this season and NASCAR is banking on Suarez to become its breakthrough international star.
"Hopefully, I can get an opportunity to win the championship and have some fun, have some fun with everyone that has been supporting me a lot here in the U.S., in México, and the entire Latin-American people," he said.
JONESING FOR A TITLE
The 20-year-old Jones is competing in his first full season driving in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won the Trucks Series championship last season and filled in for an injured Kyle Busch in Sprint Cup. He'll move next season to the Cup series and team with Martin Truex, Jr. at Furniture Row Racing. FRR switched to Toyota this season and formed a technical alliance with JGR.
"For sure, a long-term goal of mine, especially after we got the Truck championship, was to try to go chase down all three," Jones said. "It would be a big deal for me to go to Homestead two years in a row and win championships in two different series."
JGR has won 18 of 32 Xfinity races — a combined six for Jones and Suarez.
Allgaier and Sadler both carry the banner for JR Motorsports. Allgaier, though, is winless this season and has only three wins in 306 career starts.
"Look, a championship is a championship. If we get that route without a win, I'll still be extremely happy and take that championship trophy to the house," he said. "I would love to have a win. But there is still one chance to win a race."
WDUN will have live MRN Radio coverage of Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series season finale, the Ford Ecoboost 300 from Homestead-Miami Speedway beginning at 3 pm on 102.9 FM.