Elliott Sadler was left to reflect on what might have been at Daytona after missing out on what would have been a fairytale victory in the biggest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar.
Sadler led the race for more than 20 laps after hitting the front shortly after the fifth caution period but luck wasn't on his side when he lost position to Matt Kenseth just half a lap before Aric Almirola spun to bring out what would be the eighth and final caution of the event.
That caution coincided with the arrival of rain and the race was redflagged, and with the forecast suggesting that the shower wasn't going to pass, the result was called – with Sadler classed in fifth after losing out to the drafting cars behind when Kenseth made his move for the lead.
“If you'd have told me at the beginning of the day if I would take a fifth place finish and lead some laps for the Daytona 500, I probably would have taken it,” Sadler said at the finish. “It's a great way to get a good start to the season. But to be a half a lap short from being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me. I had a chance to win it, but just made one mistake off of turn four. I didn't drag the brake enough. Kevin [Harvick] and Matt had a really good run.
“I chose to go high because my car wasn't really good on the bottom the whole day. When my spotter told me the #29 was pushing the #17, I could see him coming. I had to make a choice, let him go to the outside of me or under me. I decided to let him go under me and hopefully try to side draft a little bit. They had such a good head of steam.
“I can play that pass back in my head a million times between now and when I leave to go to California, but it's not really going to change the outcome. I needed to do a better job leading the race and put my car in a position to make it wider for them to pass. I can sit here and try to be a Monday morning quarterback, but it's not going to work.”
Victory for Sadler would have capped the perfect end to a difficult period for Sadler, who looked like losing his drive after the merger of Petty Enterprises and GEM over the winter before the threat of legal action saw him keep his place at the wheel of the #19 Dodge and he admitted it had been an emotional experience to go so close to Victory Lane.
“I really wanted to go to Victory Lane with my guys,” he said. “I needed this after the off season that I've had; it really would have been cool.
“I'm going to be honest with you; I'm not going to lie to you. I was getting pretty emotional under the [seventh] caution when it was raining a little bit in turn one and two. I thought it was going to be called a little bit earlier than it was. I was getting emotional in the car thinking, 'Wouldn't this be the coolest story?' I came down here as a fan the first time in 1979 and finished second to Ward Burton, and now to have a chance to win the race.
“I've seen guys like Harvick and Newman celebrate the last couple years on last lap passes, and how fun it looks to me in Victory Lane. I had a lot of that cool stuff going through my head. But, you know, just wasn't meant to be. It's tough. It's hard to swallow. But I'm proud of my guys. They all worked out great tonight. To look in their faces when the rain was coming down when I got out of the car, man, that was hard, because I felt like I let them down.”