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With career shift to baseball, Elliott Sadler managing in more ways than one

NASCAR Xfinity Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 300

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 03: Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage presents Elliott Sadler, driver of the #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet, with a gift before his retirement at the end of the year prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 3, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Elliott Sadler no longer has a fire suit hanging in his closet these days. Instead, it’s a baseball uniform. He’s also moved on from “Drivers, Start Your Engines” to “Play Ball.”

And with the coronavirus pandemic keeping he and his family in their Emporia, Virginia farmhouse, Sadler can’t help but keep hearing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in his mind.

After 23 years of racing in NASCAR, Sadler is on to the next chapter of his life, coaching baseball and softball.

NASCAR Xfinity Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 - Qualifying

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 03: Elliott Sadler, driver of the #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 3, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

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“I love it, absolutely love it,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “I’m being able to give back and help some kids and show them some ins and outs and prepare them.

“And if they do a good job and make it to college or have a chance to go to college, then we feel like we’ve given them a platform, opened a door for them. Then that’s great, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do.”

Until the coronavirus hit, Sadler was managing or coaching seven different baseball teams, including a traveling squad that plays throughout Virginia, North and South Carolina and was scheduled to play this summer in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I’m probably busier now than I was when I was racing,” said Sadler, who in addition to the traveling team also coaches a high school junior varsity team, a recreation league team and four youth teams that are part of the TopHand Sports Academy in Emporia.

“I have a new life now with baseball and softball and the new organization I’m part of,” Sadler said of TopHand. “That’s an every day of the week job. We have 360 kids involved in our program and that’s what I put all my attention into now. I’m not worried about getting back in a race car.”

Being unable to hold batting practice or attend games, Sadler is still in close contact with his players – albeit not in-person.

“Yeah, it’s sad,” Sadler said. “We’d been working together since November non-stop to get ready for the season to start. And then the first week of the tournament gets cancelled because of the coronavirus, which it should.

“It’s just so hard to see them work so hard, get ready and then nothing. They don’t understand it as much as we do as grownups about what’s actually going on and what we have to do to keep each other safe. So I’m really heartbroken for them.”

But Sadler is still able to stay in touch with his players.

“I’m doing a lot of video conferences and lessons, then I’ll send it to (his players) so that when they’re at home, they can learn stuff and do things as well,” Sadler said. “We’re trying to stay as connected to them as we can but it’s tough.”

As much as Sadler loves his new calling, he’s also spending plenty of time these days working on his iRacing skills.

“It definitely gets your competitive juices flowing,” Sadler said. “I think anybody who’s a competitor, no matter what you do, you want to compete and do good and do the best you can.

“My son (Wyatt) and daughter (Austyn) both love it, as well. It’s been neat that we’re all kind of enjoying this experience together for the first time.”

But forget about Sadler – who retired after two starts last season in the Xfinity Series – potentially considering a comeback in real-life racing.

“Never, never, I did it for 23 years, that was long enough,” he said. “I had some great experiences and some tough ones as well, but I did plenty of time in that. I have no interest at all of getting back in a real car or truck or anything like that. This iRacing is fine for me.”

And there’s an extra benefit. With iRacing, Sadler doesn’t have to worry about the impacts as when he did in a car. “Now, if I hit something, I’m not going to be in too bad of shape. I can hit reset and start all over again,” he said with a laugh.

With this being Racing Week in America on NBCSN, Sadler reflected on two specific races that will be replayed: the 2001 July summer race at Daytona (8-10 p.m. ET today on NBCSN) and the 2004 Brickyard 400 (Midnight to 2 a.m. ET early Friday morning).

The 2001 July race at Daytona marked the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of the NASCAR community returned to the track after Dale Earnhardt Sr. perished. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would go on to win the race (followed by Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip and Sadler in third).

Here’s how Sadler remembered that race:

“Dale Jr., a couple of his best friends, and myself and two of my best friends, rented a house in Daytona the week of that race. We hung out together for a week before that race. I think Junior wanted to go back there in his own terms and go on the track on his own terms.

“We hung out together, kind of eased ourselves back into the Daytona limelight, partied, took care of each other, had a lot of laughs and good times for the week before the race even started. They also had a big concert there and we got to hang out with Hootie and the Blowfish and Kenny Chesney.

“It was a special weekend. It was neat for us finishing third. We had a pretty decent car all night. That was back in the day when all the DEI cars were faster than everybody else on restrictor-plate races. What I remember most about that race was the last pit stop. We came out and Michael Waltrip was right behind me when we left pit road. The race was still under caution and I think we were running something like 14th or 15th.

“I decided to pull over and let him pass me under caution, which NASCAR won’t let you do that now but they weren’t paying attention back then (he laughed). I pulled over to let him pass me because I knew he was going to be so fast anyway, that way I could just follow him through the field to the front. Where if he was behind me, all I was thinking was he was going to leave me out to dry and everybody’s going to go with him. I let him by me and followed him up through the pack and all the way to finish third.

“I had no chance (of catching Junior) and I knew that. My car wouldn’t leave real fast but it would push pretty good. I knew if I could get behind Michael and follow him and make moves and stay close to him I’d be in pretty decent shape, and that’s the way it turned out.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Bar Harbor 200 - Practice

DOVER, DE - OCTOBER 05: Elliott Sadler, driver of the #1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet, speaks with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Bar Harbor 200 presented by Sea Watch International at Dover International Speedway on October 5, 2018 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Then there was the 2004 Brickyard 400. Jeff Gordon won in overtime, followed by Yates Racing teammates Dale Jarrett and Sadler.

“I had a really good car the whole race,” said Sadler, who started and finished third. “Coming down towards the end of the race, I felt like I had a little bit faster car than my teammate, Dale (Jarrett), but I couldn’t figure out a real good way to get by him.

“He was so good and didn’t slip any. I felt like if I could get by him and I could get to Gordon and make something happen if I got to him as compared to trying to make something happen with my teammate.

“But to finish third to Jeff Gordon and my teammate was really neat at a place like Indy, but I really felt like I let one get away there.”

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