JOILET, Ill. — Just as predictable as the weekend fender bashing is the awkward conversation a few days later.
This time, it was Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith. And they talked, too. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. waded into the fray.
The latest NASCAR feud arrived at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday when Sadler, Smith and the rest of the Nationwide drivers held two practice sessions for today’s STP 300. The stop in suburban Chicago comes one week after the championship contenders got into a heated discussion in New Hampshire.
“For him to do what he did at New Hampshire, I’m still ticked about it,” Sadler said. “But we talked and we agree that our racing’s going to change a little bit between us. But we know that we’re going to be racing around each other a lot between now and Homestead.”
The dispute could have staying power, especially after the conversation between Sadler and Smith produced little headway.
It all started when Smith spun Sadler on the final restart in Saturday’s race at Loudon, costing him a shot at a solid top-10 finish and a potential $100,000 bonus. An angry Sadler then confronted Smith after the race, insisting he would not win the series title this year.
“I made the move and I can’t take it back,” Smith said. “I understand his anger 100 percent, and I know exactly where he was coming from. He was racing for a lot of money and the opportunity to race for a lot of money again this week.”
Throwing out what was at stake, Sadler thought the collision was particularly egregious because he felt he handed a big break to Smith when he gave him extra room to maneuver in a tough spot at the series’ stop in Iowa and said he went out of his way to race him cleanly earlier in New Hampshire. The two talked during the week, and Earnhardt, the co-owner of Smith’s No. 7 Chevrolet, also reached out to close friend Sadler.
“We talked and if it’s a situation where we’re going for it, I’m sure he’s going to race me considerably harder than what he has in the past,” Smith said, “and that’s to be expected. I would do the same.”
Sadler, who won last July’s Nationwide race at Chicagoland, shook his head from side to side when asked if he felt any better after the conversation.
“My No. 1 goal is to win the championship and win races,” he said. “The effect of me and how I race Regan is just going to change, as far as giving room and give and take and stuff like that is probably going to change a little bit.”
Sadler finished 18th in New Hampshire and is fifth in the standings, trailing series leader Smith by 24 points. Sam Hornish Jr. is second, just five points back, and Austin Dillon is third with 16 races left.
“I love it. I hope that they’re mad at each other,” Dillon said, enjoying the argument between Sadler and Smith. “If not, I’m going to go tell Elliott Regan’s talking about him behind his back. I think it’s funny.”
While arguments between competitors are nothing new in sports, NASCAR drivers seem to make more of an effort to smooth over disputes than say, two hockey players who just got into a fight. When the dugouts clear at a baseball game, don’t expect to see the managers jump on the phone to air their grievances.
Sadler said there’s a simple reason for that difference.
“When you play hockey, you have ‘Blackhawks’ written on your jersey, so you’re responsible for the Blackhawks,” he said. “When you drive racing, we have Fortune 500 companies up here. They don’t want you running around, I think, punching people, then setting a bad example. And I think it’s a courtesy thing.”
Brian Vickers, who won Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire, said the calls also happen because drivers spend more time with each other more than competitors in other sports. But Dillon questioned the need for many of them, saying the most important practice is to be responsible to your teammates and race your competitors the way you want to be raced.
“Every driver looks at those things differently and has different ways that they want them to be handled when it happens,” Smith said. “It was a situation where I felt like I needed to call even though it was not one of those phone calls you really want to make.”