Commentary

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 ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Elliott SadlerAP 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."

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty

Marty,

Everyone's talking about the Goodyear tire meltdown at Indy, and I'm sure you've gotten a million e-mails about it. Here's one more, because I need your take. That was awful, and as a fan I'm as disappointed in NASCAR as I've ever been. I'm one of the "hard-core" fan base, the ones who've been around for more than a couple of years. I need it straight, Marty -- you have to be disappointed, too.

-- Edward Murphy, Sarasota, Fla.

You're right, Edward, everyone is discussing the Indianapolis tire debacle. So I'll keep it brief: It was an embarrassment for the sport and can't happen again, and the paying fan ultimately lost.

Assessing blame at this point is frivolous. It was a combination of a top-heavy car, an abrasive, unreceptive track and an unforgiving tire. All share blame equally. It's time to look forward, and in doing so Goodyear and NASCAR need to revamp tire-testing policies.

Three cars aren't enough. Make it 10 or 12. Drivers have different tendencies and require different setups. There needs to be a larger specimen from which to draw information.

No team is going to say, "No, thank you" to an invitation to test. They'll gladly take part. And NASCAR should pay for it, too. They won't, but they should. Testing tires isn't a fundamentally voluntary decision.

The sport requires optimum performance from its rubber, so it should be treated as a sanctioning-body machine test. Not a team machine test. Goodyear pays NASCAR to be in the sport, so those two entities should work in conjunction with one another to be certain the tires on the cars are up to snuff.

Back to Sunday quickly: To be fair, NASCAR had two choices -- run 16 10-lap sprints or pack up and head home. They made the right choice. That's not debatable. When there was racing, the racing was pretty good. But there was never any rhythm.

Thanks for all of the great insight, Marty.

I noticed during the Brickyard 400 that Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards (and maybe the rest of the field -- I just noticed it when these two were running out front at the end) were running a really unusual groove. On the straightaways, they would dip to the bottom just a bit and then swing back up top. Was that really where the quickest groove was? Thanks so much!

-- Leslie in Minnesota

From a driving perspective, Indianapolis might be the most technically intensive track on the Sprint Cup slate, Leslie. Johnson's line was his attempt to break the draft with Edwards, and Edwards was following him closely in the attempt to maintain it.

Drivers use the draft on the straightaways at Indianapolis more than any other non-restrictor plate track. In fact, the draft on the straightaways at Indy requires many of the same decisions from the driver -- bump-drafting, for example. -- that the superspeedways do.

Here's the catch: When they get to the corners, they have to back off. Indy's corners are among the flattest and tightest on the circuit, so drivers want air on the nose to gain downforce.

Another interesting thing about Johnson's approach Sunday: he told me he wanted to remain out front at all costs, because being out in clean air he could control his tire wear better. Cars mired in dirty, turbulent air slid around more, greatly increasing tire wear.

I guess these boys actually do do more than turn left, huh?

More on Johnson ...

Marty,

I saw where Jimmie Johnson is racing for Randy Moss at Bristol for the Trucks. That's going to be cool. Did Jimmie already know Moss or how did that happen?

-- James Fernandez, Kingsport, Tenn.

Nope, they don't know one another, James. Here's the deal: Aside from the obvious -- a third straight title to join Cale Yarborough in the history book -- Johnson has two goals in 2008: win Bristol and Watkins Glen.

Running Moss' truck was an opportunity to have a some fun while learning more about the intricacies of Bristol. Truck Series machines are more like the COT than Nationwide cars, so Johnson opted to run a truck instead of a Nationwide ride.

Chevrolet has long had a relationship with Morgan Dollar Motorsports, from whom Moss bought 50 percent of what is now the No. 81 team. Doug Duchardt, a longtime Chevrolet motorsports executive who has since moved to Hendrick Motorsports, helped facilitate the deal.

Johnson has wanted to do this for some time. He told me he'd even contacted Kevin Harvick about possibly driving a truck for him at Bristol.

Marty,

Recently the Nationwide Series has mandated a decrease in horsepower for the Toyotas running in that series, seemingly because of their dominance this year.

Everyone knows of the horsepower advantage on the Cup side as well. Is there any pressure from the non-Toyota teams in Cup to have NASCAR curb the Camry's horsepower as well? I'm sure Jack Roush has something to say about it. Thanks. Long live "The Six"!

-- Andy L, Ann Arbor, Mich.

No. I'm told this is a Nationwide-specific change, Andy. Despite the perception that Kyle Busch is running away with the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR tells me they're pleased with the parity there. Every manufacturer has won multiple races, and there have been 10 different winners in 19 races. They're good with Cup -- for now.

A nice young lady intersected me in Gasoline Alley Sunday and told me she wants a "The Six" T-shirt. We're gaining steam, Andy ...

Random: For whatever reason, a bunch of readers ask for my musical guidance, as if I have any clue what I'm talking about. But I love music, so why not? Here are two songs to check out: "These Boots," Eric Church; "El Cerrito Place," Charlie Robison.

Hey Marty,

If you took the restrictor plate off a car and ran a lap or two around Talladega, how fast do you think these new cars could go? Bill Elliott's 212.809 mph is the stuff of legend.

Could the new cars go faster? I would love to see NASCAR let a team test an unrestricted car on an empty Talladega track. It could even be an offseason television event! How awesome would that be?

-- Justin Bowers, Modesto, Calif.

They definitely go faster, Justin. Four years ago, Rusty Wallace took the Miller Lite Dodge around Talladega unrestricted at NASCAR's request, on behalf of Nextel and Racing Radios, to assure quality audio at high rates of speed. He averaged 221 mph laps, hit 228 mph at the end of the straightaways and said he figured 235 wasn't out of reach.

He also said there was no way in hell he'd do it with 42 other cars out there.

That's my time. My lawn looks like Jimmie Johnson's hair.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.