News & Media

Sadler content, but hoping for return to Cup

May 27, 2011, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Elliott Sadler will admit it -- there are times he misses racing in Sprint Cup. There are times he misses lining up on Sundays with NASCAR's best drivers, and knowing he belongs at the top level of the sport. But there are other times when he thinks of the struggles he endured in his latter years on the premier series, of the disadvantages he faced, of the mediocre runs he suffered though. And he doesn't miss those at all.

That's when the Nationwide Series points leader, who spent a dozen full seasons on the Cup level before moving to Kevin Harvick Inc.'s Nationwide program prior to this year, realizes how content he is in his current role.

"Do I miss the situation I've been in the last few years? I don't want to cuss in here, but heck no," Sadler said at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I have learned this sport is a whole lot more fun when you have a team around you and a supporting cast around you that believes in you and wants to do well week in and week out. That's whether you're racing go-karts, Trucks, Nationwide, Cup, or what have you. I have learned that if I ever do make that transition again back to the Cup Series, I'm going to do it with a team that's competitive, and ... not just to be up there in a car to ride around in circles on a Sunday just to say I'm a Cup driver. I've had the most fun this year that I've had since I drove the 38 car for Robert Yates."

Those were Sadler's best days at the Cup level, when he piloted the No. 38 car for Robert Yates Racing for three and a half years, including a 2004 campaign when he won two races and finished ninth in final points. But Sadler's most recent stint was a difficult one, a four-year stretch with a team that morphed from Evernham Motorsports to Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to Richard Petty Motorsports. At one point he had to threaten a lawsuit to keep his ride. By the end, the organization -- which has since restructured and consolidated into a much more competitive two-car team -- was cash-strapped and barely able to make it to the race track.

Those headaches were often reflected on the race track, and last year Sadler went without a top-five finish. His contract was up, and he was looking for a place where he could contend for race wins when Harvick called. The resulting union necessitated a step down to the Nationwide level, to be certain, but Sadler still competes against the likes of Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards on a given weekend. And although he has yet to win in his No. 2 car, he's weathered a rough start to assume the points lead under NASCAR's new single-series championship criteria.

"I think at one of the preseason media interviews we had, I can't remember which one of you guys [in the media] asked me how much pressure it was going to be this year actually being a championship contender," said Sadler, who leads by seven points over Reed Sorenson entering Saturday's race at Charlotte. "This is fun. This is fun for me. I show up every week with a chance to run up front, get a top-five, lead laps, and sit on poles. This is not pressure. This is what we're supposed to do. Pressure is showing up with a knife at a gunfight for three years. That's pressure. This is fun."

Sadler hasn't won yet this year, but going back to the beginning of the 2010 season, just two Nationwide-only drivers have -- Justin Allgaier at Bristol in the spring of last year, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Iowa last weekend. Even so, Sadler has finished sixth or better in eight of his past nine starts, and his car owner believes he's ready to take the next step.

"For Elliott I think the biggest adjustment he's had to make is just to get comfortable racing in the top five every week," Harvick said. "That's just something he hasn't got to do over the last several years but it's something he's been accustomed to through his Cup career, winning races, you don't necessarily forget how to do that but you forget how many small things come with that to be able to compete on a week-to-week basis. They've got the top-five stuff down, now the next step is when you are running in the top five ... the next step is to take it to the next level and start winning some races. I think they are at that stage of needing to take that next step but it's been a great process to see it evolve, and I'm very happy with what the team has done and with what Elliott has done."

Given his experience, the quality of KHI equipment, and the rule change limiting multiple-series drivers to only one championship effort, in the preseason Sadler was a popular choice among many to win the Nationwide title. Yet he got off to a rough start, finishing 38th at Daytona and 12th in his next two events. He said it took a little while for Harvick's team to get a handle on the current Nationwide car, which put them behind Nationwide efforts fielded by Sprint Cup organizations, who were more familiar with the similarities of the vehicles on the two series. Some changes were made after Las Vegas, where he and Harvick both ran poorly. Following the low finish at Daytona, Sadler said he and crew chief Ernie Cope looked at one another and asked -- can we can get back into this thing by Charlotte?

They made it a few weeks early. "I'm happy with where we're at," Sadler said. "And the coolest thing about our race team [is], I don't feel like we've reached our potential yet. I feel like we're learning so much each week about our race team. We're really excited about where the future is going to take us. Especially the next three weeks, [they] are really three good race tracks for myself. I think we're going to continue to get better."

And what if the preseason predictions come true, and it's Sadler hoisting that big silver Nationwide cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of the season? There's always talk of KHI potentially fielding a Sprint Cup program, but Harvick said right now his team has no plans to do so -- "It would have to be 100 percent a perfect scenario," he added -- and Sadler said his boss has too much fun jumping in and out of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck vehicles he owns. But one thing is certain: For all the difficulty Sadler endured on the Sprint Cup level in his most recent stint there, he still wants to make it back. The situation would have to be right, but the desire is clearly there. Racing on Sundays, lining up alongside NASCAR's best drivers, is an extremely difficult addiction to kick.

"If my career ended as a Nationwide driver, would I be happy? Heck no," Sadler said. "My goal is to one day made it back to Sprint Cup, because I feel like I can drive circles around half the guys over there, if I was in their equipment or in the same situation they were in. My goal is to win a championship this year in the Nationwide Series, maybe next year, and if something good comes along, go back. But I can't sit here and look you in the face and give you an honest answer and say, oh yeah, I'd be happy just racing here for the rest of my life. No. I couldn't say that."