Elliott Sadler looks at track time as school time, and this year he's making a push for the head of the class. The 30-year-old Emporia, Va., native has had a steep learning curve since entering the Cup Series in 1999, but as he's matured and caught on with a well-funded, successful team, he has prospered.
With 13 races down, he's ranked third in the points race and eyeing his second straight playoff berth.
"I feel like we're just beginning as a race team," said the driver of the No. 38 Ford Taurus, who last week signed a contract extension that will team him with Robert Yates Racing for another three years. "[Crew chief] Todd [Parrott] and I, it's only our second year working together. I think we learned a lot last year."
Before last season, Sadler had never finished in the top 10 in points. But 2004 was his breakout season. In his second year with RYR, Sadler scored two victories and 14 top-10s en route to qualifying for the 10-race playoff at the end of the season. And although things unraveled a bit in the Chase for the Championship, Sadler salvaged ninth and, more importantly, learned important lessons.
"I think we learned a lot from the Chase last year," he said. "We kind of went in with a nothing-to-lose attitude and we were making some decisions and calls, not only myself, but Todd, that were maybe a lot different than what we were doing during the season to get into the chase. I put myself in situations I didn't need to be in.
"A lot of people have to remember that that was my first time actually running for a championship and running up front. That's a lot different mentality than just running 20th every week, so I had a lot to learn. ... Hopefully, we're doing a good job with that now and I just hope we can carry that through the Chase at the end of the season."
From the looks of things, it's a good possibility. And it's thanks to one of the most important things Sadler has learned: communication with his crew chief.
"I think the day we put Todd Parrott back on the [pit] box was the day we became a legitimate contender to run for championships," Sadler said. "The experience he has -- he's already won a championship with Dale Jarrett. He's the winningest active crew chief in the garage. I want to make him one of the very few crew chiefs that can win a championship with two different drivers.
"I think our team is getting stronger and stronger. It's almost where we're getting to the point where we're finishing each other's sentences on adjustments to do with the car. When you're communicating that well between crew chief and driver, I think you've got a pretty strong race team."
The pairing pitted experience with youth and has generated a balance within the team that has sparked its recent success.
"You take his youth and excitement and my experience with where I came from and the things I've done, I thing we're a great team," Parrott said. "We get along great. We get along good away from the race track. We've got a great relationship. We do things together. We go to dinner and hang out and it's a lot of fun. Right now we're running good, but like he said, our team gets better and better each week. Our communication in the last month has really, really gone to another level and I just foresee it getting better each week the rest of the season."
It hasn't gotten good enough this season to break through for a checkered flag, but Sadler believes that time is right around the corner. Even if that elusive win doesn't come soon, Sadler won't panic. The most important thing is winning a championship -- not winning a race.
"We would love to win a race," he said. "We all want to. There are a lot of teams out there that want to win a race, but if for some reason we don't win a race between now and then, I think we've run good enough the first part of the year to be in the Chase and be a threat in the Chase.
"I'm not going to start crying or anything if we don't win a race between now and then. I think we've run good enough to do it -- to win races -- and run good enough to be in the Chase, but it is a big deal because we need to win races. My team deserves to win races."
Last weekend in Dover, Del., Sadler said his team gave him a winning car. He put the fact that he finished 10th on his shoulders, saying he needs to get better at adjusting to a changing race car.
Sadler doesn't shy away from admitting a weak spot in his game. He's learning, and that's what matters to him.
"I wanted a top-five bad or just run for the win, but like I said before, it's a great finish for the problems we had at the end of the race," he said. "I just got to work a little harder as a driver about the way the track's going. I'm still a student of the game at that, and keep working at it."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.