- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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For one weekend at least, those fighting to secure a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup will be sharing the spotlight.
It's likely they won't mind a bit. Elliott Sadler, whose subpar season with Robert Yates Racing made news for all the wrong reasons, will get plenty of attention in his debut with Evernham Motorsports.
And the same will hold true for David Gilliland, who is expected to be introduced as Sadler's replacement at a Friday news conference at Michigan International Speedway.
Granted, judging either driver on his first race with a new team is ridiculous, but at least it'll provide a subplot to the talk of whether the likes of the drivers sitting sixth through 10th can hang on and whether anyone from 11th through 14th can rally in the next four races.
Sadler, though, will be in the spotlight until the race starts. Sitting 20th in points, he's well out of the Chase picture, which is why he was able to secure his release from RYR now, allowing him and RYR to get started on 2007.
For Sadler, that means driving a Dodge instead of the Fords he has been in for years. He got to shake down an Evernham Motorsports entry earlier this week at Kentucky Speedway but says the real test will come at Michigan.
"I have not raced a Dodge yet in traffic from inside the car. I've raced [against] them before outside, but as far as driving the car, I am very comfortable," Sadler says. "The car has a lot of downforce in it. ... Aerodynamics will play a big part, but as far as comfort -- here at Kentucky and being on the racetrack -- I'm very happy with the car so far. I don't know if it's the package Evernham Motorsports has got or the way the Charger really works, but so far everything has been very, very good.
"Until we put it into traffic and take it through its paces on a full race weekend, I'd just have to speculate, but so far, so good. The biggest thing you can do for a driver is make him comfortable inside the car and make him feel like he's got something to lean on. If you can get that, then you're going to get some speed out of him, and right now we've got that. So far, so good, but I'll be able to answer that more next week after I get a race under my belt."
Once the race begins, Sadler will be but an afterthought unless he's running near the front of the pack. If he's immediately comfortable with setups that work for either Kasey Kahne or Scott Riggs, his new teammates, he might find the success that eluded Jeremy Mayfield, the previous driver of the No. 19 car.
Instant success, though, would be asking a lot. Sadler knows there likely will be an adjustment period but vows he's ready for the challenge.
"We're going to go with our nose down and ready to work hard. I'm not saying we're going to blow everybody away, but we've got a lot of tools to work with and we're all going to go in the same direction," Sadler says."It's going to take time to jell and get things going, but I really like the work ethic I saw in the shop. I think it all starts with Ray [Evernham, team owner], and that's why I'm here. I can't wait to get going. I want to build something special here, and I think we can do that."
Once the green is dropped on Sunday, the focus will shift to the likes of Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne, who occupy spots six through 11 in the points, respectively. Kahne will be trying to knock one of the others out of the top 10 while making sure Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards stay safely in his rearview mirror and outside the Chase picture.
Sure, there's pressure on those in the top 10 to hang on, but with Kahne having won at Michigan in June, much will be expected of him, as well.
"The results the past three weeks don't reflect the [team's] potential," Kahne says. "We certainly had a car capable of top-10 finishes in each. That's important. We just have to execute and do what we're capable of doing.
"Michigan has been a good track for the No. 9 team. We won there earlier this year and had a couple other finishes in the top five. I like the track because you can move around searching for a faster line. Cars will be running two- and three-wide. With four races left to decide the Chase field, we have time to get back in the top 10. The first chance comes this weekend at Michigan. We must take advantage of the opportunity."
While team owner Evernham will be busy helping Sadler get acclimated, his focus will be with Kahne's team, too. Evernham has had a team in the Chase each of the playoff system's first two seasons and certainly doesn't want that streak to end.
Kahne is his only hope, so he knows the team needs to get back to where it was. Kahne has won four times this year, tied with Jimmie Johnson for the series lead, but he's still in danger of missing the Chase.
"We're not in panic," Evernham says. "If you look, we've had some bad runs in places we expected to have bad runs. We've had bad runs on the superspeedways and the road courses, which were two of our biggest weaknesses. We've still got to get our plate program going better if we want to win championships.
"With that said, Kasey was going to get a top-10 finish at Watkins Glen, he was going to get a top-10 finish at Indy and was involved in last-lap crashes in both instances. Kasey feels bad about that."
A blown engine ruined what Evernham says would have been a top-10 finish at Pocono. He said the cars are capable of getting the job done; now it's a matter of making sure they don't have equipment failures and that Kahne doesn't put himself in position to get caught in any wrecks.
"If we don't make mistakes, we've got a great shot to get back in the Chase," Evernham says. "We're not panicking, but we also know if we want to win championships, we've got to get stronger in certain areas and Kasey has got to get more experience. As far as the communication and preparation and everything on that race team, I feel really good. We've had to take the razor blades out of the toolbox for poor [team director] Kenny Francis, but sometimes you just can't control everything that happens."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
For one weekend at least, those fighting to secure a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup will be sharing the spotlight as Elliott Sadler makes his debut for Evernham Motorsports, writes Mark Ashenfelter.