Elliott Sadler wowed critics last year by earning a spot in the 'chase for the championship'. This year the No. 38 Robert Yates Racing Ford team hopes they have learned from their mistakes and can once again find the momentum they had at the start...
Elliott Sadler wowed critics last year by earning a spot in the 'chase for the championship'. This year the No. 38 Robert Yates Racing Ford team hopes they have learned from their mistakes and can once again find the momentum they had at the start of 2004.
They are off to a good start.
Sadler was quickest in initial practice for the Daytona 500 on Friday and second fastest in the following session. He and Jeff Gordon emerged as the fastest rides and the biggest threats for the season opener victory.
"Our team definitely wants to come back again," said Sadler. "A lot of people thought we were a surprise ad snuck up on everybody. But we're going to show everybody that hopefully last year wasn't like that - that we can definitely keep it going.
"It was the first year Todd Parrott (crew chief) and I worked together and we won some races and did the things we needed to do. I think if we can do those things again, I think the x-factor for our race team is DNF's. I think if we can keep it down to zero, one or two for the regular season, we'll be right back in the middle of everything come the second New Hampshire."
Things went bad for the No. 38 team shortly after making the chase. A series of accidents and bad luck mired the team at the bottom of the point bucket after being as high as 4th in chase standings. Sadler ended the inaugural chase a disappointing ninth overall.
Sadler feels that he has matured as a driver and is ready to make his first real bid at a Daytona 500 win and his first championship title.
"I've never been a championship contender and used to running up front every week," said Sadler. "I probably wasn't doing all the things I should have been doing as a driver the last four or five races. I probably couldn't take the pressure.
"It's like a great quarterback who is unbelievable in the regular season, but when you get in the post season where there are different situations and it leads to different things. I think after going through what I went through last year in the chase, I understand what I need to do better as a driver to get prepared for it. I can't wait.
"If we get back in the chase this year, I think I'll do a lot better job at running every lap, trying to see every checkered flag, get all the bonus points that we can and kind of let the rest fall away where it may."
It's easy to see that in the off season Sadler has done a lot of soul searching about the paltry end to a winning year. He appears more focused, energized and spot on than he has been in any year of his Cup career. The confidence is oozing out of every pore but he still has the reflection to admit he fell out of the seat last year.
"He (Todd Parrott, crew chief) has and if I would have listened to him more last year I probably would have done a lot better in the final 10," Sadler said. "When you get in there and you get so competitive - I think the biggest mistake - and I think if you ask anybody involved with the chase - we were so sadly mistaken.
"Being a part of the chase was so much harder than making it. When you're running against nine other guys that are that close and every position counts, and you're running sixth or seventh thinking you're having a good day until you look and see three or four of the guys you're racing against in the chase ahead of you. That makes you do things in the race car that you just can't do and you get yourself in trouble.
"That's what I did."
"I was driving over my head a lot of places trying to make up ground and then you get frustrated and try to put the full court press on and sometimes you get burned. I just have to learn to be a lot more patient with it and just race my own race no matter what they do."
While Sadler looks stout for the Speedweeks events his real challenge will come when we get to Fontana and Las Vegas. The new softer tire and spoiler reduction has put handling back in the drivers' seat and a lot of the younger racers are having trouble adjusting to the new feel of the cars.
For now, Sadler's not thinking about that, he has one thing on his mind: his first 500 win.
"This is not a point race for the 38 team," said Sadler. "We came in here to win the race. We'll worry about points racing when we unload at California."