- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Elliott Sadler was seated on the black leather couch beside the door that leads to the front lounge of the No. 19 transporter, and he was not happy. He was madder than I'd ever seen him, he said he felt robbed by the rich in a moment when he'd rarely felt poorer.
He needs a good run -- several, in fact -- and had one going at, of all places, the Infineon Raceway road course. Sonoma was the last place the Southern-born Saturday night short-track racer was supposed to excel. And there he was in the top five, nearing the race's conclusion.
Then Jeff Gordon sent him for a spin, ruined his day with a 17th-place finish. Understandably, Sadler was livid.
I tracked him down postrace in that lounge, asked him about the incident and stood in awe as he unleashed a verbal lashing. Afterward, my cameraman was bug-eyed. We both were.
Sadler is nearly always diplomatic about such setbacks -- especially when it comes to champions like Gordon. Sadler most always plays the nice guy that lets it slide as a disappointment, and "looks forward to gettin' 'em next week" and all that mess.
But his back is against the wall. There's no time for nice.
I replayed that moment in my mind for days, the boiling frustration in his face and voice.
He's fighting for his career. Folks wonder whether he can drive anymore. They wonder if he's done. That's easy to infer, mind you, given the lack of performance the past several years.
But truth be told, there's far more involved in achieving success than we fans could ever fathom.
That's why I can't help but wonder what a change of scenery might do.
See: Jamie McMurray.
One year ago most folks said McMurray was done. I did. In three-plus seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, he hadn't sniffed his high expectations.
Granted, he was often paid the backhanded restrictor-plate compliment: "He's great at Daytona and Talladega. But where were the results everywhere else?" At Roush he won twice -- one each at Daytona and Talladega -- registered 11 top-5s and finished no better than 16th in points.
When it became obvious his time at RFR was over, McMurray's options were slim. He was lucky to get a ride with his ol' buddy Chip Ganassi because, see, he wasn't an easy sell to sponsor Bass Pro Shops. At Ganassi's urging, they took a chance.
Now look at him. Daytona 500 champion, four top-5s in 18 races and two poles. He's fast practically everywhere.
All of a sudden McMurray can drive again. Ain't that convenient?
McMurray is a walking, breathing victory for the good guys. Who knows? Maybe Sadler would be, too.
"I told Elliott this," said McMurray -- a close friend of Sadler's who understands his position -- "for him, just my opinion, to me Elliott just needs to go somewhere that is obviously a fresh start, and where people believe in him. Where he is now [at Richard Petty Motorsports], I don't know if those guys really believe in Elliott. That's not a good environment for anybody -- not the guys on the team or Elliott himself."
The powers that be at RPM can believe whatever they want. That's their prerogative. It's not the first time a managerial regime change hurt an athlete. It happens every day in professional sports. Look at Jason Campbell, the former Auburn quarterback who was drafted by the Washington Redskins and never had the same offensive coordinator for more than a cup of coffee.
It's tough to do well in an erratic environment like that. Campbell's now with the Oakland Raiders, and will probably perform quite well. He needed a new start. McMurray can relate.
"For me it was all about that fresh start -- rejuvenating yourself," McMurray said. "I had to be somewhere that people believed in me."
Read that again and apply it to your life. If you know that the boss man or your family or your spouse or your kids or your buddies believe in you, you're far more apt to excel. If not, your performance suffers. With that backing comes confidence. Confidence is vital.
Jeff Burton was in a similar situation six years ago. The dynamics were different, but the outcome was similar. Burton had a stellar run at Roush, won 17 races between 1995 and 2001, and made a couple of runs at a championship. But in 2003, his performance waned. Burton says Roush still believed in him, but the team was stagnant. There was no quick-fixing it, and Burton knew it.
Some said Burton's best days were behind him. He hadn't won in a couple of years. It was time for a change, so midway through the 2004 season he sat in Mark Martin's trailer at Watkins Glen and cried as he told Roush he was gone.
It makes a significant difference when people around you believe in you. And you can be in a situation long enough where the people around you forget the good and only see the bad.
”-- Jeff Burton
"It makes a significant difference when people around you believe in you," Burton said. "And you can be in a situation long enough where the people around you forget the good and only see the bad.
"There's not a driver out there that has only had good. It doesn't matter how many wins and championships you have, it only takes a little bit of bad for people to forget [the good]."
Look at Gordon. He's won everything but the Big Game Lottery, yet questions still linger. It's ridiculous. But it's racing.
"When people understand your shortcomings and look to help you, you can maximize the situation," Burton said. "That's what you've got to have. If the people around you don't believe in you, no matter how hard you try, if they're saying 'He can't get it done,' they're not putting in the extra effort it takes."
"I would say that the drivers' opinion of Elliott is he's a really good driver," McMurray said. "I mean, the guy was really successful. He's been put in a tough position. That organization just hasn't done as well as it was expected. It's changed ownership a few times. When things aren't going well and you throw all that on top of it, it just makes it worse."
Remember, when Sadler left Robert Yates Racing, he left to drive for Ray Evernham in a time when Kasey Kahne was smoking people on 1.5-mile tracks and opportunities seemed limitless.
So maybe Sadler just needs a new start. And if he gets it, maybe he'll surprise some people, like McMurray has.
That'd be another victory for the good guys.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Elliott Sadler could use some luck, but some of his friends in NASCAR believe he needs a change of scenery more than anything. Is he washed up? That's the same perception Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray fought -- and conquered.