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Caraviello: Sadler taking step down to move career forward

January 25, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Move to Nationwide Series, and title expectations, bring focus back to racing

He's spent much of the past three years in a kind of motorsports limbo, driving on NASCAR's premier level for an organization where ownership changes and financial crises seemed almost annual events. He spent so much time near the back of the field that he became an object of both pity and derision. And yet, to see Elliott Sadler these days is to see a driver happy, content, and comfortable with his position as the favorite to claim a championship in 2011.

Amazing how rapidly things can change. By the end of last season, Sadler had become a whipping boy at a Richard Petty Motorsports outfit that barely had enough cash to get to races. His average finish was 24.8, his three career victories seemed forgotten. At 35 and with his car at RPM being shuttered for lack of sponsorship, he appeared bound for the same late-career slide that had doomed so many other drivers -- jumping from ride to ride, each progressively a little less competitive, just trying to hang on to a place in the sport.

"It's not fun going out there and not feeling like you have a gun in a gunfight every week. So if you're not in the right situation, why go put yourself through that?"

--ELLIOTT SADLER

Instead, he did something very different. It takes a certain degree of humility for a veteran driver to be willing to step down a level in order to rebuild his reputation and his career, but that's precisely what Sadler has done in signing a two-year deal to drive for Kevin Harvick Inc. in the Nationwide Series. The contract came with a big bonus -- because of both KHI's proven track record and the new rule barring Sprint Cup regulars for competing for the Nationwide championship, the easy-going Virginian steps into a ride that's expected to contend for the title.

That's a stark contrast to his most recent Cup campaign, where he managed just a single top-10 finish for a team in dire financial straits.

"I feel like I'm rebranding myself, because I feel like I've lost a little bit over the last couple of years of who Elliott Sadler really is -- of the race car driver that he really is, the love of the sport that he really has," Sadler said Tuesday during NASCAR's preseason media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Getting back to Nationwide racing, I think getting back with a team that's going to give me the best equipment week in and week out, it's about racing. We talk racing. It reminds me of when I grew up racing at South Boston and places like that. I feel like a kid again. I feel five years younger this year than I have in any of the past off-seasons that I've had."

Granted, Sadler's choices for this season were narrowed somewhat by RPM's decision to contract from four cars to two. But this is also a driver who has competed at NASCAR's top level for 12 years, who has solid name recognition within the fan base, who has long been a fixture on Sunday afternoons. And yet, it had all just become too miserable. He didn't want to go Cup racing just for the sake of Cup racing, and instead chose a fresh start in NASCAR's No. 2 series.

"If you're not in the right equipment, if you're not with the right situation, it's not worth it," Sadler said. "It's not fun going out there and not feeling like you have a gun in a gunfight every week. So if you're not in the right situation, why go put yourself through that? I'm a racer at heart. I don't have an ego. Everybody knows I'm a laid-back guy. But first I'm a racer, period. I wanted to get myself in a situation where we talk about racing. I go to the shop, I talk to Kevin on the phone, we talk about racing. We don't talk about any of the other stuff that some people like to talk about. That's our focus this year, and I've had a lot more fun, I can promise you."

Sadler's stint at RPM was fraught with drama -- the team's ownership structure changed twice during his time there, he once had to threaten a lawsuit to keep his ride, and along with everyone else in the organization he endured the financial crunch that had them wondering if the haulers would even make it to the race track. "I've been in a tough situation the last two and a half years, everybody knows that," he said. "It just got to the point where it wasn't about racing anymore." And yet, he found positives in the experience.

"It's made me a better person," said Sadler, who last won at the Cup level in 2004. "It's made me appreciate things a lot more. I took for granted when I drove for people like the Wood Brothers and Robert Yates and stuff like that. It's good to be with owners, and it's good to be with sponsors where, all they talk about is performance and racing. I promise you guys, it makes you a lot happier and a lot more focused on the job at hand, and that's getting the most points you can each and every week."

The relationship between Sadler and Harvick took root last year, when Sadler won a Nationwide pole at Bristol in a KHI entry, and posted a strong run of Truck results in a KHI vehicle that included a victory at Pocono. For Sadler, those events were the most enjoyable moments in an otherwise rough 2010. The focus quickly turned to 2011 -- Harvick wanted an experienced driver to contend for the Nationwide title, and Sadler wanted a competitive ride. The deal was inked in early November, with OneMain Financial, a company that had once backed Sadler under a different name, on board as sponsor. Sadler will also drive a handful of Truck events under the KHI banner, and has the freedom to run a few Cup events for other teams should the opportunity arise.

Harvick said he's paired his most experienced team with Sadler, and that there "will be a little bit of a letdown for everybody" if the car doesn't contend for the championship. He also senses a large degree of determination from his new driver, particularly after what Sadler has endured the past few years.

"It's like I've told him from the beginning -- you don't go out and win races on Sunday, at any point over the last however many years NASCAR's been here now ... and not know how to win. You just don't forget that. You don't just lose that. It just doesn't go away," said Harvick, who also drives the No. 29 car for Richard Childress Racing on the Cup circuit.

"He's won in everything he's ever done up until this point. He needs to forget everything he's done over the last several years and go back to those Yates days, because those are inside. Those are in him. He knows that. He's just got to forget about what he's been doing. He's been the stepchild the last couple of years, and he's been kind of stepped on. And I think as you look forward, he's the guy who's carrying the banner to race for a championship for us. He's going to do a good job, and we're going to support him, and he's going to get his career back to where he wants it to be."

The competition has already taken notice. "It would be hard to bet against Elliott," said JR Motorsports driver Aric Almirola, when asked who (besides himself) he would consider the favorite for the Nationwide championship. "He's got a lot of experience, and he's a really good race car river. Kevin Harvick Inc. did a really good job with their new car. They were really competitive right out of the box with it. ... I think it would be tough to bet against [Sadler]. They're all going to be tough, but if I had to pick one, I'd pick him."

It would all seem to create an ideal opportunity for KHI to expand its operation to Cup, a step Harvick and his wife DeLana have yet to take. Any movement in that direction would require the approval of Childress, whose RCR Nationwide car now operates under the KHI umbrella. "Richard holds the keys to that," said Harvick, who explained that a KHI Cup effort would only exist if it benefitted RCR in some way. But if that scenario ever materializes, Harvick would want a veteran -- like Sadler -- behind the wheel.

Sadler said he and Harvick have broached that subject, and that the KHI shop in Kernersville, N.C., could easily accommodate a Cup effort. In some ways, his hiatus from NASCAR's top level could be his way back in. But for the next two years, Sadler says his focus is on Nationwide. This season, it's on winning a championship. After what he's been through the past few seasons, that level of high expectation is a welcome relief.

"Compared to what I've been through, this is no pressure. This is fun," he said. "Yes, the bull's-eye is apparently on our back because of who I drive for, and the team we have, and the funding that we have and the experience that I have, but we're showing up to race. We're putting our best foot forward. We've got new cars, we've got new equipment. We've been to the wind tunnel, which is cool. We've been to the wind tunnel more for our Daytona race than I have the last two and a half years combined. That puts it in perspective."

The opinions experessed are solely those of the writer.

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