Commentary

Sadler still seeking breakout season at NASCAR's highest level

Elliott Sadler is his own greatest critic. But the Gillett Evernham Motorsports driver has stopped beating up on himself, even after back-to-back mediocre seasons, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: January 29, 2008, 1:53 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Elliott Sadler's career hardly has been a wash. With three wins at NASCAR's highest level and a berth in the inaugural Chase field in 2004, Sadler has made a mark.

It's far from indelible, however, and the 32-year-old from Emporia, Va., is well aware of that fact. Lucky for Sadler, there still is plenty of time to change that, even if the past three years have left the impression he already has peaked.

[+] EnlargeElliott Sadler
AP Photo/Terry RennaElliott Sadler said a fast start to the season will be important for he and his team.

After winning twice and finishing ninth in points in '04, Sadler slipped to 13th a year later. In 2006, Sadler saw things weren't going to turn around at Robert Yates Racing and moved to Evernham Motorsports, where he and Kasey Kahne became teammates.

Sadler's career was supposed to take off a second time in 2007, but while what is now known as Gillett Evernham Motorsports struggled, Sadler posted just two top-10 finishes and wound up 25th in points. Kahne's year wasn't all that special, either, but after six wins in '06, there's no argument he can't become a superstar.

The jury is still out on Sadler, but answers should be forthcoming soon.

"I don't want to say it's a key stretch as much as those are his years," said Ray Evernham, now the team's minority owner. "I think it's time for him to come into his own. He knows that he's got the ability; we want to put him in the race cars [capable of winning]. These are the years that he should perform and make his mark.

"I firmly believe that he's got the talent to win races and make the Chase. We want to put him in that position. It's his time. He's got to be a big part of that, too. It's his time. It's time for him. We'll give him everything we can, and if he gives everything he can, I think he can surprise a lot of people."

For a driver who has struggled with handling his own expectations in the past, Evernham's words could be more pressure than Sadler needs as he tries to get his career back on track. Sadler's harshest critic has long greeted him in the mirror each morning, and that has been a drawback at times.

Now, though, Sadler says he has matured and realizes there is only so much he can do. He still is hard on himself but not to the point where it impedes future progress.

If he hadn't changed, last year might have been a breaking point. Despite Kahne's success in '06, the team didn't adjust to changes to its Dodge Chargers, and trying to get a handle on what was then known as the Car of Tomorrow was problematic at best.

"I've matured a lot. If that had happened to me in my first couple of years of racing, I'd have probably just went crazy," Sadler said. "But I understood where we were fighting, I understood my role in the team, the things I needed to try to do to make our teams better not only for last year but the years coming up, especially this year.

"We feel like we learned a lot from last year. We feel like we've made our teams better in the areas we struggled at, and I've had a great offseason at home. I feel like I've recharged my batteries and taken 2007 and thrown it as far away from me as I can. … 2008 is a new animal, it's a new breed, and we have to be focused on that."

I firmly believe that he's got the talent to win races and make the Chase. We want to put him in that position. It's his time.

-- Ray Evernham

One change was implemented late last season, when Rodney Childers was named Sadler's team director, switching over from Scott Riggs' team. Riggs was the odd man out at Gillett Evernham when new owner George Gillett wanted to find a spot for open-wheeler Patrick Carpentier, who will drive the No. 10 Dodge this season.

Mark McArdle, vice president and managing director of competition at GEM, is charged with getting all three of the Cup teams working on the same page. Sadler says Kahne is great when it comes to sharing information, and the two are trying to see if their driving styles mesh to further enhance communication.

Having focused on the team's engine program in the past, McArdle hasn't worked as closely with Sadler as he will going forward. Still, he believes the driver's mind-set definitely is better than it was entering his first full season with the team a year ago.

"I think that he is looking forward to the 2008 racing season more than he has looked forward to any season in a long time, and I think the reason is that he feels that he's surrounded by the right infrastructure and the right people," McArdle said. "He and Rodney Childers have just clicked. They've had an excellent rapport right from the time that we put them together.

"Elliott has already expressed to me that that's the most important thing to him, is being in that cocoon, that warm, comfortable surroundings where he knows his needs are always the thing that is the most important [to the team]. And that his cars receive equal, if not preferred, attention from some of the others in the shop."

Sadler thinks the first five races will go a long way in determining what type of season it will be for GEM. If the team doesn't beat itself or do anything to take itself out of contention, he can envision making the Chase, along with Kahne, while Carpentier has a solid rookie campaign.

In years past, talk of a big season might have rattled Sadler. But now, instead of running from Evernham's expectations, Sadler is trying to embrace them.

"He really believes in me, and that means a lot to me. Ray believes in my talent in the car and my personality," Sadler said. "He thinks if we do everything we're supposed to do, we should be competitive. … I think we can [do that], too.

"We learned a lot about each other last year through some tough times. We have made the changes that I think are going to help the [No.] 19 team. We've added a lot of depth and experience to that team. Hopefully it'll be able to show each and every Sunday.

"For him to come out and say that -- and he reminds me of that; I'm 32 years old, it's my 10th season, I've got a lot of experience, I'm right in the prime of my driving career, that I should go out and get things done. That makes me feel good as a driver, and hopefully we'll be able to do that."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.