Elliott Sadler hasn't been in victory lane in a Nationwide Series race since October 31 1998, but that didn't mean he needed any directions to the celebrations after claiming the chequered flag in the Bashas' Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix International Raceway.
It was also just as much of a statement of intent from his team, Richard Childress Racing, which returned to the series this season after buying back the Kevin Harvick, Inc. Nationwide operation at the end of 2011.
Sadler's win was set up by a perfectly judged pit stop strategy by crew chief Luke Lambert call during the final caution, which enabled him to go on to take the lead on lap 174 and then ease out enough of a lead over Brad Keselowski to give him sufficient margin to make it to the finish line despite running into traffic in the closing laps.
Before that final round of stops it looked like the race was owned by Sadler's team mate Kevin Harvick who had initially taken over the lead after the first restart of the day for a debris caution on lap 43. Up till then polesitter Denny Hamlin had been looking comfortable in front save for four early laps that boasted Trevor Bayne in the lead.
Harvick held the top spot over Hamlin through to the second yellow of the day on lap 104, triggered by Kenny Wallace having a tyre fail on him that sent him into the wall. Hamlin had the faster pit stop under the ensuing caution and took the lead for the restart, but once again Harvick was quick to take over when the green flag came out. He seemed untouchable right through to lap 164, when the final caution came out for debris and pit stop strategy proved decisive - with Harvick going on the wrong side of the call.
Harvick's choice to go for four tyres and fuel while everyone else around him went for two tyres or fuel-only dropped him down to seventh place for that final restart. He had expected to be able to use his fresh set of tyres to power his way back to the front, but instead found himself caught up in a near-accident when Kasey Kahne hit the wall hard on lap 169. Harvick had to take a daring line across the dogleg infield apron to avoid being hit by Kahne on the rebound, and the scare seemed to take the shine off the #33's performance for the remainder of the day.
That left Sadler with the chance to power his way to the front ahead of Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and while Harvick tried to fight his way back into contention he ended up losing out to another RCR team mate, rookie Austin Dillon, in the battle for fourth place at the line.
With only three yellow flags all day, and the leaders very fast on the one mile tri-oval, it hadn't taken long for half the field to be pushed off the lead lap. The lack of cautions also meant that few had any opportunity to get back on equal footing for the rest of the race. Danica Patrick was among those having a nondescript day, finishing three laps down by the chequered flag.
Kyle Busch - who won this event last year for Joe Gibbs Racing after leading every lap - was finding it altogether tougher going in his newly-launched Kyle Busch Motorsports Nationwide team, especially running year-old equipment. He ran as high up as third on lap 56 but then ended up scraping the wall coming out of turn 2; while he was able to carry on, it took the edge off the #54 and he finished down in 11th place just behind Michael Annett who had had his own encounter with the wall on lap 114.
The first laps of the race saw those on the outside line - including Stenhouse and Wallace - all struggle to hold their lines and consequently they lost multiple positions after the green flag because of the lack of grip and amount of dust up high on the track. The lack of a second groove also meant that many cars started to cut across the newly-paved infield apron under the yellow line (which is allowed outside of Daytona and Talladega) either to avoid accidents or to try overtaking moves; Sunday's Cup race may well see more of the same.
But Saturday absolutely belonged to Sadler and RCR, with Sadler taking away from Phoenix a solid lead at the top of the Nationwide Series points standings over Austin Dillon and Trevor Bayne.
Even better for Sadler, earlier on during Saturday it had been announced that he'd landed five Cup races in the Michael Waltrip Racing #55 car, as Mark Martin (who had earlier put the #55 on pole for the Cup race at Phoenix) is only running a part-time season. Michael Waltrip himself will also have five outings behind the wheel, and the remaining two Cup races of the season at Watkins Glen and Infineon will be handed to a road race specialist to be announced.
No wonder the grin on the winner's face in victory lane was as wide and bright as it could possibly be.Full race results available