A week ago at Indianapolis, Elliott Sadler had not been a happy man. Judged to have jumped a crucial restart near the end of the race because of a shove from behind over which he'd had no control, he had been served a costly drive-thru penalty that had handed the race win to Brad Keselowski and left Sadler fuming on his way to confront the NASCAR officials, to no avail.
"We felt like we should have won that race last week," admitted Sadler. "I'm not going to lie to you, I'm still disappointed about last week.
"It's been a rough week," he added, referring to his father having surgery during the week but who had still had time to offer some words of advice to his son: "He said do not let them take this championship away from you," Sadler revealed. "Go to Iowa and kick their butts."
And sure enough, this weekend at Iowa Speedway, Sadler responded to last week's adversity in the best way possible and the only way he knew how: by winning the US Cellular 250 from pole position, despite encountering some stiff competition from Justin Allgaier along the way.
Sadler didn't get the best of starts to his evening's work, losing the lead on the first lap to fellow front row man Darrell Wallace Jr. Despite this being only his second Nationwide Series start (his first in May was also at Iowa), the 18-year-old pulled out a big margin over Sadler and the rest of the field and held it through to lap 35, when worn tyre and lapped traffic held him up just long enough for Austin Dillon to slide past him for the lead.
"It's cool to lead the first lap," said Wallace, who was driving the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing car. "I don't know if he gave it to me or I took it away from him, but that was fun there."
A planned competition caution to allow teams to take a look at their cars after earlier rain has passed over the Speedway came out on lap 50, and at the restart Dillon held the lead over Sadler, Brendan Gaughan, Justin Allgaier and Sam Hornish Jr., Wallace having dropped back to ninth after a slow pit stop.
"I think I got out too hot right there at the beginning and kind of used the tyres up," admitted Wallace later. "We fell off right there in pit road; mistake, my fault there."
Sadler got the slightly better restart but was unable to make it stick, Dillon finally seeing him off after several laps of side-by-side running between the two. A second caution on lap 87 for a spin in turn 4 by John Blankenship set up another visit to pit road for the leaders, but a slip for the rear tyre man cost Ricky Stenhouse Jr. vital seconds and Austin Dillon also had problems, dropping him down nine spots for the restart on lap 96.
Justin Allgaier had taken the top spot for the green flag, leaving Sam Hornish Jr. and Michael McDowell fighting over second spot ahead of Jason Leffler and Cole Whitt. Further back, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch were battling over ninth place; Busch was one of four drivers (along with Hornish, Mike Bliss and Joe Nemechek) to have flown in from Sprint Cup Series duties at Pocono in time to do a double shift in Iowa.
By the time the race reached half distance, Allgaier's lead was an impressive two seconds over Elliott Sadler who had calmly worked his way back up to second ahead of Hornish, Dillon and Michael McDowell. McDowell made light contact with a lapped car down the backstretch and lost a couple of positions, while Dillon came to pit road very early on lap 138 complaining of a serious vibration.
The rest of the field weren't expecting to pit until around lap 180m but before that could materialise there was a debris caution on lap 172 to make the visit to pit road more amendable. Allgaier and Sadler remained in charge of the front row for the subsequent restart, with Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr. making up the rest of the top five.
Allgaier was once again unbeatable at the restart and blasted away, but Sadler was safe enough in second place and the comparatively old hand bided his time, started to make in roads into Allgaier's impressive lead, and then - when he judged the moment to be right - he made his move. On lap 192, Sadler dived under the inside of the #31 and emerged from turn 1 with the lead of the race for the first time in over a hundred laps.
"When I got to Justin, I had a hard time passing him," said Sadler."He kind of knew where my car was fast. He made one slip off turn four and opened the door for me. I got a really good bite under him. I knew once I got out front we were in really good shape."
Not that Allgaier was about to let Sadler walk off with the race after having led 101 laps of the race. Anytime Sadler threatened to break way, Allgaier would put his foot down and close right back up to the the #2 and it was impossible to tell which of them truly had the upper hand for the closing stint of the race.
A caution could have changed the entire complexion of the race, but none appeared> Austin Dillon's spotter made the case for debris on lap 206 when his man was in the lucky dog position, but that came to nothing. Nor did Danica Patrick's slide up the race track into a light brush against the wall in turn 4 a couple of laps later while running in tenth place, costing her a few positions in the process. By this point, only 15 cars were on the lead lap - and that was reduced by one more near the end when Kurt Busch pitted on lap 244 with a shredded right tyre and a small fire in the wheel well, having complained of high temperatures for much of this final stint. He'd been running in third when the tyre let go, and ended up finishing in 17th as a result.
The longer the run went uninterrupted, the happier Sadler was looking out on front and the less likely it seemed that Allgaier was holding anything back for a last minute challenge. The gap between first and second remained steady at around a second, and while a final half-hearted charge from Allgaier cut that to 0.649s he could do nothing more about preventing Sadler from claiming the chequered flag.
"It's tough to see Elliott out there and know you're catching him and there's not really much you can do," admitted Allgaier after the race ended. But he didn't appear too downhearted: "To come here and lead the most laps and run as good as we did, I was proud of that."
Sadler was delighted with the win, although clearly the issue last week at Indianapolis was still playing on his mind. "This would be three wins in a row for my race team" if not for last week's penalty, he said.
"What happened last week is something we're putting in the past," insisted Sadler's crew chief Luke Lambert. "It's a little bit of a heart-breaker, but when we got to work Monday morning we were here to race Iowa. We're moving forward, and we're going to win a championship."
Sadler's win at Iowa means that he rebuilds some of the points margin he'd enjoyed in the Nationwide Series championship standings going into Indianapolis last week, which had been hit by that black flag drama. He's now backup to 18pts over Austin Dillon, who has just 3pts in hand over reigning champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Although Dillon finished a lap down at Iowa, Stenhouse hadn't quite been able to make the most of the opportunity to overhaul the rookie in the points after the Roush Fenway #6 struggled for grip all evening, at a track where he'd dominated in May and led for 209 of the 250 laps; this time, he failed to lead a single lap all evening.
"We lacked right-side grip," he said. "But it's the same tyre for everybody, and we didn't quite figure it out. It's just part of the game."
Danica Patrick held on to 11th place after that late-race encounter with the wall, while early race leader Darrell Wallace Jr. also stayed on the lead lap to the end to finish in an impressive seventh place to build on the ninth place he'd claimed in his first Nationwide Series outing here in May.
"Definitely learned a lot from just running in the pack," Wallace said after the race. "I know our car wasn't that great on restarts and that's where we lost all our track position. We could have tightened it up a little bit more on that last run, I think we could have got a shot for running at least top-five, but definitely better tonight."
Full race results, qualifying and practice times
, and Nationwide Series championship standings