Top trio set for final shot at title

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is cautiously optimistic heading into race day about his shot at a second consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series title.

Elliott Sadler is preparing for the season finale filled with regret over an incident a week ago.

And Austin Dillon? Well, he’s just waiting to see what shakes out between the other two and if he can steal this title in the final race.

The trio remains in the Nationwide title hunt entering Saturday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But after Sadler went three wide fighting for 12th and ended up crashing at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, he finds himself in a 20-point hole with just this race remaining. Dillon is another five points behind Sadler.

It’s certainly not an insurmountable deficit, but it is one that instills confidence in Stenhouse and haunts Sadler as the race nears.

Sadler owned up to his mistake from the start. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept, though.

“I still take the blame,” Sadler said. “It’s one or two things that happened on the racetrack last week that could have really changed where we finished and how our racing points could have been different at the end of the race, a little break here, a little different line there, a little not mistake here or there. So things could have been definitely different.

“But I look back on it as a mistake and I talked to my team about it and could have done a better job, but I’ve got to come back this weekend 100 percent focused and ready to go and try to make up a really big deficit at a tough racetrack as far as giving up points from Ricky’s side.”

Even as he tries to put it behind him and focus on the task at hand, the Richard Childress Racing driver admits that it has made for a few long days. He’s run on at least a part-time basis in the Cup series for 14 years, made his Nationwide debut in 1995 and then began competing full time in that series two years later. He knows from experience that racing can offer triumph and heartbreak.

Right now, though, he just wants to keep all his attention on the laps remaining in this season.

“It was a tough week,” he said. “It’s been a long week just because I felt like I put ourselves in a really big hole. We’ve got to have a really big weekend this weekend.”

As for Stenhouse, who is looking for his second consecutive title before moving into the Cup ranks with Roush Fenway Racing next season, it’s easy to be buoyed by the lead – and easy to keep it in perspective as well. After all, these two have traded the lead throughout the year.

Still, he seems relaxed and laid back as he prepares to try and take the title Saturday.

“I always take it easy,” he said. “I enjoy my time, whether it’s throwing a football like I did in the motorhome lot Wednesday night or hanging out with the guys. … I’m almost so relaxed that I almost have to tell sponsors, ‘Hey, I’m really focused on this, but this is how I like to be.’ I like being relaxed. I like goofing off. I don’t like being uptight.

“I don’t have any prerace rituals. I don’t do anything the exact same every week. I can be walking around the trailer in my boxers listening to music or messing with the guys or I can do whatever. It doesn’t matter, I could be sleeping and wake up in 15 minutes and go to intros, get in the car and go race, so, for me, there’s no set schedule of what I do. There’s no, ‘Hey, I need to be really serious this weekend.’ I am who I am and I enjoy it.”

All three of these guys seem to share that fun-loving spirit. They said they respect one another on the track and enjoy each other off it.

“We’ve been with each other the last — Elliott and I have, the last two years racing, parked in the garage next to each other every week, and our teams get along, we fly on the same planes,” Stenhouse said. “If you don’t get along, it makes for a long season.

“This year has been fun with these guys, bringing Austin in with us, and it’s just been, I guess, a regular relationship if you want to call it, friendship. You always get on the racetrack, each one of us want to beat each other as much as the other one does, and we go out to do that every week.

“But off the racetrack it’s a friendship.”

Saturday, though, only one of these friends will emerge with the title.