Long before Dale Earnhardt Jr. was Elliott Sadler’s boss, he was Sadler’s close friend.
It’s no wonder that Sadler — who joined JR Motorsports for the 2016 XFINITY Series season – is already feeling right at home with the organization run by Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley.
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Elliott Sadler drives his No. 1 JR Motorsports OneMain Financial Chevrolet Camaro during practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The relationship between the two men goes all the way back to their days as teenagers racing Late Models at short tracks in the Southeast.
"We just really hit it off and spent a lot of time together then growing up and really have a special interest in each other’s success as an owner and as a driver, and I think that’s what makes this so special," Sadler told FOXSports.com on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of Saturday’s XFINITY Series race.
Earnhardt feels the same way about Sadler.
"Winning races is great, but when you do it with your friends, it’s even better," he said in announcing Sadler’s hiring last fall.
A former Sprint Cup winner who returned to the XFINITY Series full time in 2011, Sadler has driven for multiple XFINITY teams the past few years. Among them are some of the sport’s best – Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and, most recently, Roush Fenway Racing.
In fact, this isn’t even Sadler’s first foray at JRM – he made five starts for the Mooresville, North Carolina-based organization in 2010.
While Sadler has finished no worse than sixth since returning to full-time XFINITY competition, and was the championship runner-up in 2011 and 2012, the veteran driver has yet to reach the proverbial Promised Land. His desire to do so was a factor in his decision to join JRM — which has finished first and second, respectively, in the standings the past two years with driver Chase Elliott.
"It’s definitely a good situation to be in," Sadler said. "Dale and I have been very good friends a long time. We can sit down and have a conversation face to face and be very honest with each other and about each other, what we’re trying to do, what we’re doing and the direction we want to go in. I haven’t had that relationship in awhile with an owner, so it’s neat to be in this situation and to have the opportunity that Dale and Kelley have given me, and I want to make the most of it."
Sadler, who finished fourth in last weekend’s season opener at Daytona, is paired with first-year crew chief Kevin Meendering — who was Earnhardt Jr.’s highly acclaimed engineer on Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 Sprint Cup team the past few years.
Earnhardt believes Meendering will play a key role in helping Sadler pursue his ultimate goal of a championship.
"He had a bit of a hard luck go the last several years since he left RCR," Earnhardt said of Sadler. "He was kind of doing well with them. The last couple years have been a little challenging for him.
"I’m hoping that we give him a great foundation and a lot of support to be able to be competitive this year, get back to Victory Lane. We got a great crew chief working with him."
After going winless in two of the past three years, Sadler is admittedly feeling some pressure to take it up a notch.
But he believes he’s come to the right place to do it.
"As far as proving something, I have to prove something to myself," he said. "Nobody has more fire out there looking at me than I have with myself. I have a little chip on my shoulder; I think every driver does. You want to go out there, you want to run up front, you want to do good, you want to get the finishes that you feel like you earned. That’s kind of where I’m at as a person right now."