It wasn't until last year that Elliott Sadler realized he had made it.
He finally had, at long last, the resources and funding he'd always craved. And he had a teammate to strategize with and, perhaps most important, he'd had those things for a full year and was raring to go from the drop of the first green flag.
"I had the time of my life last year," Sadler said. "I never knew that racing and being in the middle of it all the time could be so much fun."
There's no way he could have known. The driver's license Sadler uses to compete has always said NASCAR on it. His cars have always been registered with the Cup garages, but when he used to race for Wood Brothers Racing, he was the lone driver in a one-car stable and had trouble keeping up.
Even after taking the seat of Robert Yates Racing's No. 38 Ford, Sadler was still distanced from the competition; he had to adjust to his surroundings, and the brand-new team endured startup pains.
But in 2004, Sadler joined the big leagues on equal footing. He was in the right equipment, with the right team, at the right time. And the proof was in the fact that Sadler became a threat -- grabbing a berth into the first NASCAR playoffs and finishing ninth in the points standings.
It wasn't until last year's strong finish that Sadler had the confidence to set bold goals and truly believe he was a favorite to contend for the Nextel Cup title.
This season, Sadler has been clear: Anything less than another playoff run would be disappointing. He also has been crystal clear about how he plans to do it -- and it starts now. Sadler is strong at the intermediate, 1.5-mile racetracks, which means the chase for the 2005 Cup is in full swing for him.
"We need to make really strong progress here the first two months because these are Elliott Sadler-type of racetracks," he said. "California, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas are four of the first seven races this season, so these intermediate racetracks -- these mile-and-a-half tracks, which I group California in because they are intermediate cars -- are where we need to gain a lot of points.
"Our goal is to be in the top five in points leaving Texas because after that we'll go to tracks where we may not have been as strong in the past."
With an eighth-place run at California Speedway last week, Sadler is sitting in sixth place in the points standings, and he has two straight intermediate tracks coming up: Las Vegas and Atlanta. Confidence is running high, especially considering that Sadler's car was strong for both tracks last year. He finished sixth in Vegas and, though he finished only 29th in Atlanta, says he has pinpointed the problem and is eager to get back.
"I know everybody is excited because we're all starting out zero-zero, but I really think the hurdles that we went over last year, we learned a lot about each other, we learned a lot about our teams," Sadler said. "We know we've got some good points. We know we've got some places we need to work on."
One place the team needed work was finding answers to the technical questions a lot faster than it did -- or didn't -- last year. But team owner Robert Yates and General Manager Eddie D'Hondt revamped the organization and added many new employees -- including an entire technical group.
"Having just two race engineers on our staff for 2004, we scratched and clawed our way to stay atop the constant change our sport brings," D'Hondt said. "We have now built a full engineering and technology staff designed to bring us answers to questions full time while our teams are away testing and racing."
Just one of the perks of racing with the big boys, Sadler realizes now. Some other perks? Consistently running fast, consistently benefiting from fast pit stops and consistently finishing races.
Sadler has all the pieces in place to have his real breakout year in 2005.
"It's different now when you start the season knowing you can win the championship," Sadler said. "It's exciting."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.