Team showing signs of life in '04


FORT WORTH, Texas -- For more than a decade, Robert Yates Racing meant superiority in building some of the best engines to ever power a NASCAR Cup racer.

Yates had the uncanny ability to squeeze more ounces of horsepower out of powerplants than his opponents, which led his organization to such accomplishments as 54 career wins, including a triumph in the 1992 Daytona 500, the 1999 Winston Cup championship, and the eventual side business of selling motors to other teams.

But over the last year, Yates' superiority vanished. After Dale Jarrett won at Rockingham in February of last year, the team spiraled into one of its longest and most frustrating winless streaks since Yates opened for business in 1988.

The harder the team worked, the worse it sank. Employees came and went in innumerable shuffles, and Jarrett and teammate Elliott Sadler -- who came to the team with great fanfare prior to the 2003 campaign -- continued to be shut out of Victory Lane.

Sadler, who himself went through three crew chiefs in his first season with RYR before Todd Parrott returned to the fold late last season, even admitted that in the organization's darkest hours, he wondered at times if he had made the right decision to jump from the Wood Brothers to Yates' team.

That was all forgotten Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway when two huge winless streaks came to an end -- Yates' 41-race skid and Sadler's own 108-race drought -- as Sadler earned his second Cup victory in the Samsung/Radio Shack 500, narrowly defeating Kasey Kahne by 0.028 seconds in the eighth-closest finish in Cup annals.

"We bit off a lot and said we were going to make this 38 team what we thought it could be, and we didn't have our equipment right," Yates said. "Now we are getting it right. It couldn't be at a better place to win than Texas. There are big crowds and it pays well. It's the whole deal, a great deal."

Things began to go south for RYR last season shortly after Jarrett's win at the Rock. It would eventually end with the 1999 Winston Cup champ tying his career-worst finish of 26th, an incredible drop-off from the ninth-place showing he racked up in 2002.

Things weren't all that much better for Sadler. For a guy whose best season in Cup competition was 20th in 2001 and who felt RYR would be his ticket to incredible success, he finished only slightly higher than his teammate in 22nd place.

Clearly, things were not very pleasant in Yatesville.

But the combination of a celebrated alliance in the engine department with Roush Racing this year (Roush drivers have won three of the other seven races thus far) and Sunday's win by Sadler shows RYR is on its way back up. Not only was it Sadler's first win since his initial Cup triumph at Bristol in March 2001, it also marked his second top-five and fourth top-10 showing in the first seven races this season.

"A lot of things were lifted off my shoulders here this weekend, and we're in the all-star race (the Nextel Challenge in mid-May)," said Sadler, who also won a Gatorade 125 qualifier race at Daytona this year. "I wanted to step in and run this good right off the bat (when he joined the team last season), but we just had a very frustrating year with the teams getting changed around and things like that.

"I started looking at myself in the mirror wondering if I'm doing the right thing as a driver. Am I giving the right feedback? You start questioning yourself so much every night when you go to bed. This is a tough, tough sport. It's not like stick-and-ball sports, where there's one winner and one loser. I mean, you've got 42 losers every week. All 42 of us are wondering what we did wrong and what could we do better."

Sure, Sadler his happy for himself. But that's not by any means where his joy ends.

"To see Robert Yates' smile on his face when I pulled into Victory Lane means more to me than anything I've ever done. It's just a great feeling to be able to give back to people that have taken a chance on you."

Indeed, the entire Yates organization can feel some vindication.

"I think it's big," Parrott said. "To win here at Texas is a great place. It's a place Robert Yates Racing has had a lot of success at. We won here in 2001 with DJ (Jarrett) and in 2002 we were leading the race and ran him out of gas. All the guys in the engine shop, they work really hard. Everybody has worked really hard for the last two years, but it's just good to see a smile on Robert's face. For us to be able to do the things that we're doing right now, to put a smile on his face and smiles on our faces, to be able to come here and do this is something that's very, very satisfying."

With the win, Sadler, who jumps from ninth to fifth in the standings, is quick to point out that Parrott has been arguably the biggest key to his turnaround.

"Todd is the cornerstone of what's making this whole operation go good," Sadler said. "I learned so much about him last year. I made comments earlier in the season that he's a very demanding crew chief. He expects a lot of his driver and I didn't know how to take that last year. But over the winter we became better friends and are finishing each other's sentences more. I think we're communicating as well right now as we ever have, so I think we're just going to get better and better. I believe in him 100 percent."

And, while it wasn't as spectacular as Sadler's win, Jarrett himself had a slight taste of vindication. Even though he finished 18th, he did jump two spots to 20th in points. The Cup series next heads to Martinsville in two weeks, where Jarrett won in 2000.

"It's pretty exciting," Jarrett said of Sadler's win. "He's always said that this is probably his favorite racetrack and he's always done well here. He came here, had a real good test and you could tell he was excited about the weekend. Everything seemed to work good for him. I couldn't be happier for Elliott. He's got a lot of talent and he's a really good kid. He's deserving of a lot more victories."

Sadler almost missed the chance at celebrating, barely squeezing between the lapped car of Johnny Sauter and runner-up Kahne as he crossed the finish line.

"It means a lot (to get his second career Cup win)," Sadler said. "Some of the other guys were picking on me about that, saying, 'Hey, you've only won one race.' They were teasing me week-in and week-out, so to come back and win at this track is very special."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.