Sadler knows life on the bubble all too well
A driver can be in the Chase for the Nextel Cup on one lap, and on the outside looking in the next.
Such is the fate of those on the bubble with just two races remaining before the top 10 drivers are locked in for the second edition of NASCAR's postseason. And for a driver like Elliott Sadler, it's a nerve-wracking situation.
Late in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol, Sadler seemed set to move back inside the top 10. But damage to a fender altered the handling on his Ford and he fell back a few spots over the final laps. That was enough to drop him to 13th in points, leaving him 34 behind 10th-place Jeff Gordon heading to California Speedway.
Sadler's struggled to post good finishes, but his spirits are buoyed by the fact that he won this race a year ago. That all but clinched a spot in the Chase for Sadler, so he's obviously hoping history repeats itself in a big way.
Of course, Sadler was looking for something similar last week at Bristol, the track where he earned his first Cup victory.
The finish wasn't what he'd hoped, but he says the track still provided a lift that should carry over to California.
"I gained a lot of confidence back in my driving and my team at Bristol," Sadler says. "The car we're taking to California, I think, is one of the best race cars I've ever sat in when I had it at Indy -- when we sat on the pole by so much and led a lot of that race. I'm glad California is coming.
"It's gonna be a good race for us, but, like I said, points is not even going to come out of our mouth. It hasn't. Since we talked about [on Monday], all we've got to do is go win the race. It's plain and simple. If we go and try to win that race and leave everything else alone, points will take care of themselves."
The fact that circumstances have worked against Sadler's helped his confidence. A tire problem bit him at Indy, while running into oil from a blown engine led to his Michigan misfortune.
Sadler's been quick to get down on himself in the past, but said that hasn't happened this time around. Monday's team meeting went a long way in making sure everyone's on the same page.
"We have just decided that, you know what, we can't do anything about the luck and the problems we've had in three or four of the last races," Sadler says. "We just feel like anything bad that can happen to us can happen, but we're running good when that happens. It's in our court. The ball is in our court to make the chase.
"We're going to a track that I've won at before and finished in the top 10 in the spring, and we finished in the top 10 at Richmond also in the spring. The ball is in our court. All we have to do is go and try to win each race and not worry about the points -- forget them and just let them fall where they may. I'm excited about the next two weeks. I feel like we're at an advantage because we have nothing to lose. We're gonna race hard and go from there."
While Sadler looks to win, many will be focusing on the race within the race. Carl Edwards is eighth in points, holding a 61-point cushion over 11th-place Matt Kenseth. Ryan Newman's in ninth, just 31 points ahead of Kenseth.
Jeff Gordon holds the coveted 10th spot at the moment, but is just 11 points of Kenseth and Jamie McMurray's only one point behind Kenseth. Dale Jarrett, meanwhile, is 78 points out of 10th and will need strong runs and a little bit of racing luck to fight his way back into the thick of things.
But Sadler and Jarrett both have engines built by the combination of Roush Racing and their Robert Yates Racing operation, so it would be foolish to count either out at this stage of the game.
Sadler's just looking forward to the challenge of racing the sport's best for a spot in the Chase.
"I love racing against Jeff Gordon and I love racing against Matt Kenseth. They're all former champions, and so is Dale Jarrett," Sadler says. "We've got a lot of great names that are on the outside looking in and a lot of great race drivers that are on the inside that are really becoming the hunted so it's gonna be fun. It should be interesting. I hope the fans will enjoy it, but it's a challenge to me. Hey, I know Jeff Gordon is the best there is. He's a four-time champion. If we can go out there and outrun him two weeks in a row, we're in the Chase and he's not, so that's the attitude we've kind of got going to California."
If there's a driver to watch among those on the bubble, it could be McMurray, who has three top-five finishes in his last four starts at California Speedway.
"For me to say this is an important weekend for us would be an understatement. The way I see it, this is a make or break race in terms of getting into the Chase,'" McMurray says. "A bad finish will pretty much eliminate us. We're only 12 points out of 10th, but the guys we are trying to beat have been running strong lately. It's imperative that we either maintain or move ahead of them at California so we have a shot at getting in after Richmond.
"Everyone on this team is incredibly focused. There is no doubt in my mind that we are capable of getting into this deal and then competing for the title, we just need a little luck on our side. It looked as though we were going to end up really good at Bristol last week and then we cut a tire with about 25 laps to go. That sort of thing has been happening to us all year."
Strong at Fontana in the past, engines woes have bit Gordon in his last two starts here. Still, he thinks his team is ready to rebound and solidify its spot in the top 10. Gordon has three wins and five top fives in his 10 races at the track.
"There will be a lot of pressure on all of us, but that pressure is something I feel I handle well," Gordon says. "This team just needs to focus on what we can control and not worry about the other teams.
"However, at the end of the race, you are very aware of the position of the guys you are battling with in the points. You know that passing just one more car may cut the amount of points a driver gains on you, or even add a few more points separation to those behind you."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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