DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. surely needed a break from his unsettled future in racing. Elliott Sadler provided the perfect distraction Saturday with his Xfinity Series win at Darlington Raceway.
Sadler, who drives for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports, held off Denny Hamlin over the final two laps to win at the track “Too Tough To Time” for the first time since first lining up here in 1996. It was also a joyous finish that Sadler and his team knew would please the boss, who announced Friday that his season behind the wheel was done because of concussion-like symptoms.
It wasn’t long after reaching victory lane that Earnhardt called Sadler with congratulations.
“To hear him talking on the telephone today, it’s neat to hear the excitement in his voice,” Sadler said. “It gives him something to cheer about when he’s had so much bad news. This has got to be good for him.”
Earnhardt, who’ll come to the race track Sunday to talk about his recovery, Tweeted his happiness at Sadler’s win. “I’m so proud of @Elliott_Sadler and @JRMotorsports!!!!! A win @TooToughToTame is so hard to accomplish,” Earnhardt posted.
Sadler was second in this event in 2013 and 2014, trailing Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch both times. In this one, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Hamlin, made a late charge and nosed in front two laps from the end.
But Sadler held strong through the final turns and crossed in front to earn the checkered flag at Darlington for the first time in 32 career starts — 18 in Sprint Cup, 13 in Xfinity and one in the truck series.
“I’ve been wanting to win here for a long time,” Sadler crowed after.
Hamlin ended second after leading 47 of 147 laps. Daniel Suarez was third and Kyle Larson, last week’s Sprint Cup winner at Michigan, was fourth.
Sadler, the series points leader, took the lead from Hamlin with 35 laps to go. He had opened a wide gap on the field until Hamlin, who’s won four Xfinity races at Darlington, steadily ran him down.
It looked like Hamlin would send Sadler to another second at Darlington as Sadler bobbled near the wall with two laps left and Hamlin ducked underneath and nosed ahead.
But Sadler, who led a race-high 75 laps, found the power to keep in front.
Hamlin closed in one last time on the final lap, but again Sadler maintained his position for the victory.
Hamlin said his car struggled in second gear that cost him on restarts. “It was exciting. Wish I was on the other end of it for sure,” he said.
Larson looked like he would make it two straight victories when he passed Hamlin with 57 laps left. But 13 laps later, Larson had a flat tire and slid trying to enter pit road.
WHO’S HOT: Hamlin continues to excel when he gets behind the wheel on the Xfinity Series. At Darlington, he’s had four wins and three seconds in the past seven races. He won his only other Xfinity start of the season at Charlotte in May.
WHO’S NOT: Kevin Harvick had mechanical problems that put him behind the wall just 33 laps into the race. Harvick, who has 46 Xfinity wins, has now gone winless in his last 14 series starts dating to a victory at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in March 2015. Harvick, though, is much hotter in the Sprint Cup series where he won two weeks ago in Bristol and will start up front after qualifying was cancelled due to Hurricane Hermine and the field was set by owner points.
THEY SAID IT: “I can’t say that,” Sadler said when asked what Earnhardt told him.
THE BIG ONE: It was mostly a clean race with Larson’s pit road spin the most game-changing caution.
UP NEXT: Richmond International Raceway, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 9. Chase Elliott is the defending champion.