Elliott Sadler came to California Speedway last Labor Day weekend and won the track’s first “Finish Under the Lights” Nextel Cup race, assuring himself a spot in NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship.”
This week, the country boy from Emporia, Va., will be back, and the stakes will be high again when he takes his place in the field Sunday evening for the Sony HD 500. This time, winning, or a top-five finish, will be imperative if Sadler intends to put his colorful No. 38 M&M; Ford Taurus in this season’s chase.
Sadler is 13th, 34 points out of 10th place, and in the final two races that qualify drivers for the rich and prestigious chase, he must make up that deficit -- a daunting task, what with former Nextel Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth just ahead of him and another champion, Dale Jarrett, his teammate with Robert Yates Racing, just behind him with the same objective.
“The ball is in our court to make the chase,” Sadler said Tuesday during a break in testing at Richmond, Va., where pre-chase racing will come to a climax Sept. 10. “We’re bringing one of the best cars I’ve ever sat in, the one that won the pole at Indianapolis [for the Allstate 400], and the team’s objective, plain and simple, is to try to win the race. If we do that, the points will take care of their selves.”
California’s sweeping two-mile D-shaped oval is to his liking.
“I’m a very lucky man to get to drive for Robert Yates Racing, whose cars always have a lot of horsepower, so it seems like every time we go to a big two-mile track, we’re going to be in the hunt just because of that one factor,” Sadler said.
Practice for the Sony HD 500 is Friday, with qualifying at 2:20 p.m. Saturday and race at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Consistency was Sadler’s hallmark last year. Not so this season.
After six top-10 finishes in seven races, he was third in points going to Daytona for the Pepsi 400 in July, only eight races ago. In those eight, he has finished better than 20th only twice.
“I know it doesn’t look like it, but we’ve been running good,” he insisted. “Robert Yates has put together an awesome team, but luck has been running against us. We were running sixth at Indy and had a tire problem. We were running eighth at Michigan when I ran over oil from Kyle Busch’s car and we were second at Bristol when I got tangled up in lapped cars.”
The results show a 32nd-place finish at Indy, 39th at Michigan and 13th at Bristol.
“We were running good enough to make the chase. If we get those three situations back, we’re in the top 10 with a little bit of a cushion. But we don’t have that. What we do have is knowing we’re coming to two racetracks where the 38 car usually runs good, so we’re pretty optimistic.”
In spring races this year, Sadler was eighth at California and seventh at Richmond.
The chase format, while stimulating interest in NASCAR, puts extra pressure on the teams and drivers trying to make the elite 10, Sadler said.
“It’s ungodly, the pressure we get as drivers,” he said. “Not only from our sponsors, but also from our car owners and from ourselves. I think last year, people saw how much recognition the top 10 guys got by being a part of the chase so that now every sponsor, every team, every driver, wants to be part of it. There’s only so many pieces of the pie.”
If Sadler, 30, is fortunate enough to make the Chase, he figures last year’s experience will be helpful. He suffered a letdown in the 10-race shootout and finished ninth.
“I got so excited about being in the chase that I drove over my head a lot,” he said. “I wrecked cars I shouldn’t have. I so wanted to do a good job, but I got my heart rate up a bunch in some of the races. It was my first time in any kind of a playoff and I was like a kid in a candy store, going crazy, driving too hard.”
Sadler also defended his teammate regarding Jarrett’s car-banging run-in with Ryan Newman on Saturday night at Bristol.
Early in the race, Newman tapped Jarrett’s car, spinning him around. Later, Jarrett returned the favor, but both cars ended up wrecking, as did Kevin Harvick’s. Jarrett was penalized two laps.
“I think Dale was just upset that we’re all trying to get into the chase and he’s tired of having guys run over us and he’s not going to take it anymore,” Sadler said. “I’m not either. We’ve got to stand our ground. We race for a very clean owner who wants to do things the right way. Dale is a great gentleman and probably has more integrity than anybody else in the sport.
“But you can’t let all these guys run over you and take advantage of you. Dale just decided he had enough.... He just wanted to set an example.... I think it’s what we’ve got to do. I mean, some guys will run over you each and every week, then give a little smile on TV and say they’re sorry, like everything’s OK. You know, that doesn’t stand anymore.”