Sadler swallows pride, realizes this old dog needs to learn new tricks
Elliott Sadler looked in the mirror and asked himself, "How can I get better?" He shook off his macho pride and altered his driving style to better suit his equipment. The result? He's a contender again, writes Marty Smith.
Updated: August 6, 2008, 2:55 PM ETBy Marty Smith | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Jason BabyakElliott Sadler has climbed out of his doldrums -- and out of the basement of the Sprint Cup standings.In assessing his deflated on-track performance the past few years, Elliott Sadler was stubborn as a pine knot. It wasn't him; it was the equipment. That's not to say he felt the equipment was bad, necessarily; rather, that it had to adjust to him. Not vice versa. But as the 2007 Sprint Cup Series season neared completion, something had to give. Sadler hadn't won in three years -- had barely so much as sniffed a win, for that matter -- and was no longer mentioned among the series contenders. An afterthought?He was getting his tail whipped, and he was miserable. "I got tired of getting my teeth kicked in every weekend doing it the way I was doing it," Sadler said from Emporia, Va., where he was at a rec-league softball game and enjoying a rare moment away from the racetrack. "I don't want to go to the track to be 20th. I have better things to do with my time than that. When I don't run good, I carry my feelings on my shoulder, and I'm not a very fun guy to be around."So entering 2008 he changed his approach, cast aside any remaining macho race-car driver pride and looked square in the mirror: "If I want to become relevant again, it's on me." A realization had hit him: The sport was changing rapidly, and those unwilling or unable to adapt would be phased out quicker than trans fats in Manhattan."I've learned a lot about myself this year," Sadler said, the ping of the aluminum bat ringing in the background. "I've had to change my driving style some. There's that old saying -- you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I was like that last year. "I drove my way instead of taking what the car was giving me. That hurt me a lot. I've changed the way I feel with the seat of my pants, the small things I can do to help my crew chief understand what the car's doing."Not that comparisons with Tiger Woods apply to Sadler, but the general mantra does -- unwillingness to remain pliable will break you. Some 10 years ago, Woods up and decided to rebuild his swing. Everyone thought he was plumb nuts -- the whole "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" thing. But by casting aside pride, taking a step back to gain two forward, Woods became the greatest player of all time. Sadler can relate."Some people change the way they hit a golf ball sometimes, change their swing a little bit," he said. "I went from being stubborn about my driving style to changing and adapting better. I've had to change my whole way of thinking."It has taken some time, but it's working. Gillett Evernham Motorsports, abysmal in 2007, has rallied. Kasey Kahne is a weekly contender, and Sadler is fresh off his best showing ever at GEM (fourth at Indy), maybe his best showing since Sept. 5, 2004 -- the last time he went to Victory Lane. "That's definitely the best run I've ever had at Gillett Evernham," said Sadler, 21st in the drivers' standings. "The biggest thing you go through as a driver is, with the new car, what does it like? We were struggling so much with that last year. Kasey and me both questioned ourselves: Are we doing this right? Have we lost it? And this year started that way, too."Then came the Sprint Cup test at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Gillett Evernham was tired of licking its wounds. Bingo."Yep, that's where it happened, that's where it all began to click," Sadler said. "We found out what that car needed from us, and we've been fast ever since. We knew going to Indy we were going to run good, and I know going to Pocono we'll run good. "The coolest thing about it is, we went to Indy, where there's so much prestige and everybody carries their best stuff -- best car, best motor -- and we were able to be that good."The confidence is back. Sadler has solace that he can get it done, can feel a race car and tell his crew what it needs to excel. He hadn't had that feeling in a while. "I don't like passing the buck. I'm not that kind of person," Sadler said. "I looked in the mirror and asked, 'What do I have to do to get better?' It's on me. It's working, and we're not done yet."For the first time in years, Elliott Sadler will unload his car as a contender -- at the forefront of minds garage-wide."Feels good," he said. "Damn right it does."
with Marty Smith
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