Sometimes it's hard to take Elliott Sadler seriously. The 29-year-old Virginian has an easy-going attitude and a great sense of humor. He looks as comfortable playing video games or basketball as he does behind the wheel of a race car.
In five full seasons in the Cup circuit, Sadler had exactly one win and hadn't finished higher than 20th in the championship standings. Not exactly championship material.
But something has clicked with the Robert Yates Racing team during the past year. General manager Eddie D'Hondt and crew chief Todd Parrott put together a solid program, starting with a championship-caliber crew. They believed in Sadler's skills behind the wheel and built the team around the former karting champion. So far, the confidence has paid off. They have two wins this year and are one of four teams that have been in the top-10 throughout the entire season.
"If this M&M's team keeps doing what we are doing back at the shop, in the pits and on the track we have a legitimate shot," Sadler admits about his championship chances. "I think the media may have thought I was crazy when I said that at the beginning of the year -- I said it because I meant it and I still think it can happen."
After an eighth-place finish at New Hampshire three weeks ago, Sadler has stumbled in the past two races. He is looking for a strong finish in the Banquet 400 on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) at Kansas Speedway to push him into contention for the championship in the final six races of the season.
"We've had to overcome a lot the last couple of weeks and we've still managed to salvage decent finishes," said Sadler, who flipped coming to the checkered flag and finished 22nd at Talladega last Sunday. "If we can go into Kansas this weekend and not have any bad luck I think we will be a contender for a win. In order for us to get back in the championship chase we need to win some races. That's what we're aiming for this weekend. We aren't worried about points - we want to go out and win the race."
While Sadler is thrilled to be in the hunt for his first championship, he is quick to credit Parrott for his turnaround this season. Parrott, who worked with Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace before joining Yates, helped Dale Jarrett win in the 1996 Daytona 500 and the Winston Cup championship in 1999. In nine seasons as a crew chief, Parrott has won 29 races.
Parrott sees a lot of similarities between Sadler and Jarrett and credits Jarrett for helping his younger teammate prepare for each race.
"Dale has helped Elliott so much over this season," said Parrott, who followed in his father Buddy Parrott's footsteps as a NASCAR crew chief. "They can talk to each other and Dale's experience helps Elliott to understand what he needs to be feeling in the car. It's been a great ride so far this season and I am just excited about taking it to the next level."
While Sadler is still a little hard to take seriously off the track, he has backed up his pre-season prediction and has earned a whole new level of respect on the track.
"I have been racing for 22 years and this is definitely the most fun I have ever had in a racecar," Sadler admitted. "I don't think NASCAR could have written the script better for how this whole new point system is shaking out. I have always liked it, but I want everyone to know that had the point system stayed the same as it was when Matt Kenseth won it last year I still think this team would have been exactly where we are today."