Sadler set for first extended Cup opportunity in three years as MWR fill-in

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Elliott Sadler takes over the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for the final four races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season starting this weekend in Martinsville.

It’s a temporary fill-in role for Brian Vickers due to Vickers’ latest health issue, but it could also serve as an audition for Sadler to possibly return to Cup after a journey back to the Nationwide ranks.

Sadler has started only one Cup race this year (finished 24th at Kansas in April in a fourth Joe Gibbs Toyota) and one in 2012 (10th in a fourth Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet at the Daytona 500). So he’s been off the Cup radar for the better part of three years as teams have looked elsewhere to fill vacancies.

What Vickers has accomplished in his own road back to Cup has seriously impressed the Emporia, Va. native.

“How Brian is handling all of this; I’ll be honest with you – I’m not sure I could do this,” Sadler said in a team release heading into the weekend. “The way he handled it last time and fought back, working his way back through the ranks and getting himself a fulltime ride with Michael Waltrip Racing was amazing. For him to have this setback again is really hard to watch. It is tough to see a friend go through what he is going through. I’m just there to fill in these last four races and get these guys to the end of the year.”

Sadler did speak highly of the MWR/Joe Gibbs Racing relationship, which has played a major role in Sadler being picked to fill his Nationwide teammate’s seat.

“The relationship between MWR and Joe Gibbs Racing was already really close,” Sadler said. “When I called (JGR President) J.D. (Gibbs) and asked about it he said ‘Man, that’s great for you, a wonderful opportunity, we’ll do all we can to help MWR.’ It’s pretty neat how close these guys all try to work together and help each other out. It wasn’t a really big hard decision to make. The guys worked it out pretty well.”

Sadler’s last Cup start at Martinsville came in the fall of 2010, when he finished 28th driving a Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. In 24 prior Martinsville starts, Sadler has a best finish of fifth (spring, 2003) and two other top-10 finishes.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”