Wolfpack-Tar Heel rivalry sparks success for top race team

May 7, 2012
By Chris Saunders
Lambert and Sadler after the win in Bristol in March.

Lambert and Sadler after the win in Bristol in March.

NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler was standing around in the pit at Daytona International Speedway before the first race of the season in February. ESPN reporter and NC State alumnus Jerry Punch approached Sadler and told him he was about to have his best season ever as a driver. Sadler asked why, and Punch said, “Because you have a Wolfpacker as your crew chief.”

Punch was referring to Luke Lambert, who took over as Sadler’s crew chief at the start of this season and who graduated from NC State in 2005. So far Punch’s prediction has proven to be on the right track. Sadler has won two of the first eight races of the season, and his team, led by Lambert, sits in second place in the Nationwide points race, trailing leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by only five points.

Lambert says the team’s success hinges on how well he and Sadler communicate, making a comparison to another sport. “I pretty much equate it to being the head coach of a football team,” Lambert says. “People say the crew chief is the coach and the driver is the quarterback.”

Lambert from his days with WolfPack Motor Sports.

Lambert from his days with Wolfpack Motorsports.

The Mount Airy, N.C., native says he knew he always wanted to work in NASCAR, growing up going to races at the Bristol Motor Speedway with his father and racing go-karts. When Lambert studied mechanical engineering at NC State, he became heavily involved with Wolfpack Motorsports, a student-run program out of the College of Engineering that lets students build and race cars. He went straight to work for Richard Childress Racing, where he worked his way up the ladder. Then, in July 2011 at the age of 28, Lambert got the call to be the interim crew chief for Jeff Burton on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. “That was my goal from when I began wanting to get into racing,” Lambert says. “When the opportunity came, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I figured if I didn’t take it, I may never get it again.”

His performance led him to being named Sadler’s crew chief this season, and early in 2012, the two captured wins at Phoenix and at Bristol, Lambert’s favorite track to visit as a kid. Success has been quick for the two, who have an off-the-track rivalry. Sadler is a longtime UNC fan, and he took Lambert to Chapel Hill earlier this year when the State played UNC in basketball. But Sadler says having a Wolfpacker and a Tar Heel working so well together is pretty easy when you get right down to who they are. “I think we’re both from a small town,” Sadler says. “We both have a little chip on our shoulder. We both have common sense. We both feel like we’re on the same page.”

And Lambert hopes those similarities, along with some planning, continue to produce victories and ultimately a championship in 2012 for the OneMain Financial Chevrolet team. “We’re racing for three months ahead,” Lambert says. “That includes the decisions that we’re making at the shop everyday. Not deviating dramatically from anything. And just keeping everybody motivated, too.”

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