Since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has issued a special edition of its publication called “Next.” The special issue has become an annual event that recognizes an elite group of emerging athletes sports fans should keep an eye on as they are competitors on the verge of stardom, and in the unique position of possibly transcending sports into pop culture.
As a veteran driver on the NASCAR circuit, Elliott Sadler has already proven himself as a championship contender and star competitor in the Nationwide Series. During his 16-year NASCAR career, Sadler has won races and contended for championships in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. His career Nationwide record includes nine wins, 46 top-fives, 86 top-10s and 15 pole awards. And since returning to the series as a full-time competitor in 2011, the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver has finished a close second in the Nationwide Series championship battle the last two seasons.
With such a decorated career, the opportunity for first-time or new experiences are hard to come by. This weekend however, Sadler will be able to do just that as he’ll become the “next” driver to join the Interstate Batteries Racing family of drivers.
Interstate Batteries and JGR enjoy a partnership that stretches back more than 20 years to 1992, JGR’s first full NASCAR season. And when Sadler takes to the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series Sam’s Town 300, he will become just the seventh driver to drive an Interstate Batteries-sponsored car, joining the likes of NASCAR champions Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte, as well as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin and J.J. Yeley.
It’s a unique fraternity into which Sadler will pledge this weekend, made even more special considering his long relationship with the pioneer of that group – Dale Jarrett.
Jarrett was the first among a string of JGR drivers to sport the Interstate Batteries Racing logo. During his tenure behind the wheel of the Interstate Batteries car Jarrett recorded one of NASCAR’s most memorable moments when he won the 1993 Daytona 500. While holding off one of the greatest competitors in the late Dale Earnhardt to become a Daytona 500 champion, Jarrett made the last circuit around the track while his father, Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, made the call of the last lap as part of CBS’ broadcast of the race. It was a poignant moment for the father and son that transcended the world of auto racing and made a lasting impression on a new generation of NASCAR drivers – including Sadler.
Ten years after that historic moment, Jarrett would take Sadler under his wing as a teammate at Robert Yates Racing. The two raced and worked together during the course of four seasons from 2003 to 2006, becoming close friends – a natural occurrence given everything the two drivers have in common. Both are natives of the South and come from families with racing history. They each were standout high school athletes who had the opportunity to compete collegiately on scholarship – Jarrett in golf and Sadler in basketball. They share a love of traditional stick-and-ball sports, particularly when it comes to college basketball and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The commonality that Sadler and Jarrett share is lengthy, and it expands this weekend as they will now share the honor of having driven for the respected Interstate Batteries brand. And while it’s very early in the 2013 season, Sadler hopes the “next” thing he and Jarrett shares is the title of NASCAR champion.