Elliott Sadler was 27th in points this time last year, marking the low point of a down year.
So much has happened since that it's hard to pinpoint any one impetus for change. Instead, it suffices to say that this No. 38 Ford team you see today is an entirely different entity from last season's.
"We're light years ahead of where we were last year," Sadler said, "and that's where we want to be."
Sadler and his Robert Yates Racing crew are third in the Nextel Cup standings after Sadler posted his second top-10 of the season, finishing sixth at Las Vegas on Sunday. The team has qualified and run well all season, and appears poised to possibly make a run for the title. Sadler and Co. are taking advantage of the added horsepower under the hood of their Taurus thanks to the engine partnership between his team owner and Roush Racing.
The team is also reaping benefits from countless hours spent anticipating the effects of the new Goodyear tires and planning setups to complement and compensate accordingly -- not to mention benefiting from a new nose to the Taurus, which have Fords back on track. A Ford driver (Roush Racing's Matt Kenseth) did win the Cup title last year, but that was the only Ford to finish in the top 10 in points.
"Last year the Ford drivers felt like we had greyhounds at a horse race -- we weren't competitive," Sadler said. "Now we are on an even playing field with those other manufacturers. (And) as a team we have to change and adapt with the times -- whether it is the Goodyear tires, the weather or the rules. Goodyear has changed the tires for the better. I think my crew chief Todd Parrott and my team have adapted very well to the changes."
That's what helped Sadler to his top-six on Sunday. Sadler said he was fighting a slightly imperfect car all day, but blamed himself more than his team for that. And he said its condition was still better than any other car he's brought to Vegas the past four-plus seasons.
"The car was just a little bit free all day," said Sadler, whose previous best Cup finish at Las Vegas was a 20th-place effort while driving for the Wood Brothers in 2001. "I could never really get it tightened up. But I'm so proud of these guys. I've never really done that well here and probably didn't know how to give feedback to them, but I learned a lot today and a lot yesterday in practice."
The weekend started off on a salvaged note after Sadler qualified 11th for the race with a car that would have been set up for a qualifying position much lower if not for some helpful words of advice from Sadler's teammate Dale Jarrett. Not only had Sadler unloaded a slow car off the truck, his car was not properly set up for the track conditions or weather. Jarrett went out and posted a slow speed (qualified 29th) that taught him a thing or two that he passed on to Sadler.
"That's what's great about having a teammate of his caliber and who understands what's going on with the track and the changes they made to their car," said Sadler. "We made a lot of changes to our car to adjust to it and that definitely helped us. If we hadn't, there's no telling where we would have been at, so I appreciate DJ and the help those guys gave us and maybe we'll get to return the favor another time."
Come race day, Sadler felt good about his rig. He was concerned about his shaky track record at Vegas, but optimistic of changing that trend. So when he got on the race track and realized his car was loose, he was a little frustrated. He had some trouble communicating the car's problems to the team and that might have cost him an opportunity or two to lead a lap -- or even compete for the win. But in the end, even with a loose car, the team came home with the sixth-place finish.
Sadler credited his team.
"A lot of guys on this team are giving me hints and giving me ideas," Sadler said. "I'm getting a lot of help from DJ and it's just coming together. To start off the season with two top-10s in three races is what we need. We need some momentum."
And he's definitely got it.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.