McGEE: Sadler steps up to NASCAR stardom

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Ryan McGee

2002: 23rd in points, 2 top 5's,
7 top 10's
Key stat: , 10th in points

Why does care what did last season? Because he's now in Rudd's old ride (Where have you been, dude?) 2002 marked Sadler's fourth and final season with the legendary Wood Brothers team. The year began with a flourish -- two top-five efforts over the first five weeks. But ended with a thud -- no top fives over the final 31 events.

It's no coincidence that Sadler's slide began just as the Silly Season machine set a new league record for earliest date of arrival. By the time the Winston Cup haulers rolled into Charlotte for The Winston on May 18 -- less than four months into the season -- Sadler couldn't walk more than five feet in the garage without attracting a swarm of reporters and photographers. The word was out. He was talking with Robert Yates about taking over the No. 28 ride.

"It got out of control real fast," says the 27-year old Virginian in his patented soft-as-a pillow dialect. "I asked to be released from my contract with the Wood Brothers, people started putting two and two together and the next thing I know myself, (2003 car owner) Robert Yates, (2002 car owner) Eddie Wood and can't get our work done because everybody is trying to find out what's going to happen in November."

What happened was a basic flip-flopping of drivers. But it took the destruction of a legendary car-sponsor relationship, countless shouting matches and one water bottle to the nose to get it sorted out.

"All I know is it all became one big distraction for everybody," Sadler now admits. "And that's a shame."

What's different for 2003

What isn't? Sadler takes over what was the No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford Taurus, made famous by Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan and . Now it's the No. 38 M&M's Ford Taurus. Why the number change? Take a deep breath and try to keep track...

With the M&M's deal already done, Yates promised to set aside the No. 28 should Havoline and Rudd decide to stick around...they didn't. Both had gone shopping for 2003 and nearly had a deal done to join Chip Ganassi Racing as teammate to . Rudd's talks with Ganassi fell off, but Havoline's did not. The oil company tried to maneuver its way into taking the number with them to Ganassi, but it didn't work out. By that time, Sadler's ride had already been assigned the No. 38...are you getting all of this?

When all the jacks fell to the floor, Sadler was in the No. 38 M&M's Ford, and Rudd was in the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford, Sadler's former ride. Meanwhile, Havoline did bolt for Ganassi to sponsor Jamie McMurray's No. 42 Dodge Intrepid. So, where is the No. 28? On a shelf, stuck in stock car purgatory, waiting on a deal that never came together.

Why he might do better than 15th

Easy. Yates horsepower. Not just under the hood, but all around in the form of personnel, resources and one high-powered teammate in .

Sadler will be guided from the pits by new crew chief Raymond Fox, the latest in a blue-blood line of Fox mechanics. Nearby will also be the constant presence of Yates' 35 years of NASCAR knowledge and son Doug, general manager of both teams.

"It's a little overwhelming," Sadler says. "The Woods are a classy group of people, and they run a first class race team. But when you walk into Robert's new race shop in Mooresville or stop by his engine shop, it makes your jaw drop. There's an awful lot of trophies on display in the lobby. That's because they know how to win."

Since joining the Wood Brothers in 1999, Sadler has been widely recognized as a potential star limited by an under-funded single car race team. How will he react to a top-shelf ride?

"We see a lot of things in Elliott that we saw in and Davey Allison," Doug Yates earlier this week to the national media. "We think he's a star waiting to break out."

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of which returns Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. local on Fox Sports Net and which returns on Feb. 16 at 10:30 a.m. ET on Fox Sports Net.

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