Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadlerhave more than 1,500 starts between them in NASCAR’s top three divisions. Both men competed for championships, winning multiple Cup races while driving for two of the sport’s legendary teams. (Sadler drove for Robert Yates Racing while Kahne spent six years running for Hendrick Motorsports). Corporate branding has put them successfully at the forefront of sponsorships with companies like M&M’s, Red Bull, Dodge and OneMain Financial.
Heading to Bristol, they’re also both on the verge of NASCAR racing retirement.
The sport lost two more of its veteran crop of drivers this week as a transition to a new generation of stars continues. To be fair, neither Kahne nor Sadler has been lighting the world on fire. The former lost his ride with HMS last season, has just one win since 2014 and was staring at a long build-up effort with single-car Leavine Family Racing. The latter is losing his sponsor after a last-minute change of heart brought them back for 2018; he’s winless in the XFINITY Series during a year other title contenders have broken through multiple times.
Their departures, in some ways, should be expected. But that doesn’t change the emotions surrounding two more big names moving on from a sport in transition. Combined, they have nearly 1.3 million followers on Twitter; Sadler has more (299,000) than any XFINITY Series regular. Christopher Bell, this year’s four-time XFINITY winner headed to Cup by 2020, has just 38,600.
Therein lies NASCAR’s problem as it searches for a new identity; the up-and-coming millennial crop needs to go create one. Fans found Kahne easily relatable through a series of commercials from Allstate filmed at the height of NASCAR’s popularity. Sadler is one of the sport’s most extroverted drivers and could easily transition into a career as a pit reporter alongside brother Hermie.
But perhaps these dual retirements, more than the others in recent years will be connected via missed opportunities. Kahne was Dodge’s frontman for nearly a decade, replacing NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott in his No. 9 but never became a top-line star. A six-win campaign in 2006 became an aberration as he finished inside the top five in points just once (2012). Elliott Sadler, meanwhile, made the Chase its first year (2004) but won just three times in Cup. Transitioning back to the sport’s second-tier division in 2011, his XFINITY tenure has been defined by heartbreak; he’s got a Mark Martin-like streak of four runner-up finishes in the point standings.
Yet through every disappointment, fans rallied around these stars. Kahne and Sadler may not have the trophies they want but they certainly made people care. It’s a connection sorely missed by the fans as the losses of popular drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle keep piling up.
NASCAR’s young guns will eventually win as Father Time grants them new opportunities. But that’s only half the battle. The key will be establishing the same emotional bond with the fans as the drivers leaving nurtured for nearly two decades.
2018 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: The Big Three
The numbers for Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch keep getting larger as they leave the rest of the pack in their rear-view mirror. Harvick cropdusted the field at Michigan, leading 108 of 200 laps and defeating second place Brad Keselowski by more than three seconds. Truex led the second-most number of laps (25) while Busch was third (22).
Overall, the trio has won 17 of 23 races (74 percent) and almost every event held without a restrictor plate. Only Chase Elliott (Watkins Glen) and Clint Bowyer (Martinsville, Michigan) have won outside the parity-forced plate races of Daytona and Talladega.
Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse continues to provide limited competition to Alex Bowman for the final playoff spot in NASCAR’s 16-driver postseason field. He hasn’t had a top-15 finish since Pocono in June and was a ho-hum 18th at Michigan, a race in which five of his fellow Ford “teammates” finished inside the top seven. He’s now more than a full race’s worth of points (62) behind the final spot with three races remaining in the regular season.
Bristol offers a last, best hope for redemption — Stenhouse was fourth in the spring and has a great track record there — otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board for a Roush Fenway Racing program just one year after returning to the postseason.
Jeremy Mayfield spoke out this week hoping for redemption after NASCAR CEO Brian France got arrested for driving under the influence and drug possession earlier this month. Mayfield, suspended from NASCAR since 2009, was busted after failing multiple drug tests for meth. The driver always insisted the results were erroneous, caused by a mix of Claritin and prescription-based Adderall in his system. At the time, he compared France directing effective drug policy the equivalent of “Al Capone talking about law enforcement.”
“I was telling the truth,” he claimed while looking toward an uncertain future of the sport. “I was telling the media exactly what was going on without throwing anybody under the bus. And I don’t see that Brian can just get fired, and he’s gonna go away and everything will be lovely. I just don’t think he’s going to give up his spot that easy.”
A bizarre court case involving Greg Biffle, his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law took another twist this week. The jury found Biffle guilty of invading the privacy of both women by installing home cameras and secretly videotaping them. But they awarded just $1 in damages, sending a strong message the incident didn’t cause significant emotional distress. A hearing for punitive damages is scheduled for Monday of next week.
Best wishes to Wendy Venturini who resumed her duties on Performance Racing Network (PRN) this weekend two months after a serious accident temporarily sidelined her. Venturini was out in Sonoma to cover the race there when a car in Novato, California, hit her during a morning run. The popular analyst suffered a skull fracture and a concussion, among other injuries and has been recuperating at her home in North Carolina.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Races since seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has visited Victory Lane, the longest drought of his Cup Series career.
Engine failures for Corey Lajoie this season, a total that leads the series. Lajoie runs for underfunded TriStar Motorsports, a team that gets their motors from an independent supplier rather than Toyota Racing Development.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Bristol is an opportunity to look outside the Big Three for potential winners. Kyle Larson led 200 laps this spring, finishing runner up to Kyle Busch and has three straight top-10 finishes here. Denny Hamlin has won at Thunder Valley as recently as 2012 and was third in the August night race last year.
Why not Busch, who has two straight wins here? He’s got a checkers-or-wreckers mentality at this short track. Four of the five races before that, Busch crashed, torpedoing your fantasy roster in the process. Don’t fall victim to it.
Erik Jones has been on a tear since winning Daytona last month. Overall, he has eight top-15 finishes in the last nine races. And it was in this Bristol night race a year ago the then-Cup Series rookie came of age, earning the pole and leading a race-high 260 laps until Busch pulled ahead during the final stages. Jones is driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this year, a multi-time Bristol winner in the past decade and anything less than a top-5 finish will be a huge disappointment.
As mentioned earlier, Bristol is the equivalent of a last stand for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Four of his 13 career top-five finishes have come at this track; his average finish of 10.2 is easily a career best. The problem is Stenhouse has accomplished it all without leading a single lap. That makes earning a playoff-clinching victory a tough task out in Tennessee.
If the race becomes a wreckfest, as Bristol night races often do, you might want to reach for Landon Cassill. The salary will come cheap in daily fantasy leagues as Cassill drives for little-known, vastly underfunded Starcom Racing. But he was 20th at Bristol in the spring and led 20 laps with another underdog team, Front Row Motorsports, two years ago. You never know.
Matt DiBenedetto is another good longshot, earning a sixth-place run in 2016 with soon-to-be-sold BK Racing. He’s got four top-21 finishes in his last five Bristol starts.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the pack with 3/1 odds to win a third straight race at Bristol. Kyle Larson trails just behind him at 4/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin has won at least one race a year since moving to the Cup Series full-time in 2006. He’s got a great short track record and he’s due; I’ll say his winless drought for 2018 comes to an end Saturday night.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)