Elliott Sadler is fired up entering the 2012 NASCAR season. Smiling widely as he assesses his chances to not only win Nationwide Series races this season, but also to take the title, Sadler oozes confidence.
His team has caught championship fever – and why not? Sadler is a tested veteran with a year of adjustment to the series under his belt. He quietly fell just shy of the title driving for Kevin Harvick Inc. last season. Now, that team has been absorbed into Richard Childress Racing with Sadler surrounded with a slate of new people accustomed to contending for the title. Luke Lambert, who served as an interim Cup crew chief for Jeff Burton for much of 2011, is set to lead the revamped team.
Lambert lauds his driver’s abilities and talents – and the role a veteran like Sadler can have in the organization.
As to Sadler, he’s intent and focused on chasing and winning the Nationwide Series title this season. While he’s also running in the prestigious Daytona 500 Sunday, a role that came up unexpectedly and perhaps has buoyed Sadler’s confidence a bit more, he’s zeroing in on that elusive Nationwide championship.
A year ago, Sadler finished second in the series standings. He fell 45 points shy of the championship run of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – and doesn’t plan to do that again this year. Sadler may have a new group around him, but the burning desire to be a champ remains.
The 36-year-old offers a frank assessment of his 2011 effort – and a no-holds-barred analysis of his expectations for 2012.
Will he be disappointed if he doesn’t win the championship?
“I was disappointed last year and still am,” Sadler said. “I was hung over about that a couple weeks and months, probably, after not winning the championship last year. So now it’s more to what can I do different, what can I do better to put myself in a better situation.
"If I don’t win the championship this year, I’ll definitely 100 percent be disappointed because I feel like we should have won it last year. I let it slip through my fingers, didn’t do probably as good as I needed to as a driver. (I) wish I could have some races over, those kind of things, but you can’t ever get races over. … Hindsight is 20-20, but (I) feel like we’re as prepared as we can be right now to start a good run and see if we can make it happen.”
Harvick, his team owner from last season and now his teammate at RCR, says that the expectations are different for Sadler this season.
And he has complete confidence that the driver can meet those.
“Elliott has a good attitude,” Harvick said. “He’s great with the team. I think the biggest thing is this year he’s just got to win. That’s going to be the step that we felt like we have taken with this program. We feel like the cars are better. Obviously there were a lot of factors that led up to merging the two teams but one of the biggest things that has come out of it is the technology and the advancement of the vehicles that they’re putting on the racetrack. He has a lot of good qualities that need to be mixed in with the winning, I think that will be expected, without a doubt, of that particular team this year.
“He can do it. He’s won before, he’s been here before, that’s just the expectations are a little bit more demanding, I would say, at RCR than what we had.”
Sadler went winless in his 2011 runner-up season but earned 24 top-10 finishes, 12 of them top fives, with five pole positions. Now he’s hungry for more.
This is a different Sadler than the one who took on the Nationwide ranks a year ago. A long-time Sprint Cup veteran, Sadler decided to turn to this series instead of trying to build another Sprint Cup program.
After all, he’s already done that in his career.
Sadler ran full time in the Nationwide Series in 1997 and 1998. He raced full time in the Sprint Cup ranks from 1999-2010, finishing a career-best ninth in the standings in 2004. But he finished outside the top 20 in the standings in each of his final five Cup seasons, which were spent with Yates Racing, Evernham Motorsports and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Beaten up by his final runs, he found a chance to race like he had in the past in the Harvick Nationwide team. While some might have looked at running in the Nationwide Series as a backward step, and while some have assessed it as simply a path back to Cup racing, Sadler has embraced his return to the series – and found a renewed joy in racing there.
Last year reminded him just why he raced for a living.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “… When you’re with a team that believes in you and you’re all pulling in the same direction and racing is the No. 1 goal, you can’t express how much that means to you as a person, how much fun it is when everybody’s on the same page. The worst thing a driver can go through is feel like you walk in a place and feel like the spotlight is on you and you feel like an outcast and the race is not the most important thing and you feel like you’re part of a circus and that is just not much fun and I’ve been to the highest high in my times at Robert Yates and I’ve been to the lowest low in some of the other folks I’ve dealt with in Cup racing.
“When I got lucky enough to get hooked up with (team owners) Kevin and DeLana (Harvick), people that race and that’s what they live for, that was a lot of fun for me. I feel like a kid again, I feel like I’m back at South Boston Speedway showing up just to race and have fun and I see the same kind of intensity, same kind of attitude over here at RCR.”
He carries that feeling into this season as well.
So while he certainly recognizes the impact that Nationwide success can have on his overall career, and the potential it could create to move back into the Cup series, that’s not Sadler’s ultimate goal in this endeavor.
He looks at running this season’s Daytona 500 as a bonus race. And while he clearly has a chance to win that – Sadler has five top-10 finishes, and six of 11th or better, in his last 11 Daytona 500s and finished second in the race in 2002 – he’s much more interested in snaring this Nationwide championship.
He wants that for all it offers in its own right – not for any roads it might pave to ensuing Cup success. So while a return to Cup isn’t something he would rule out, it’s clearly not his primary goal right now.
“I honestly think that if I win some races this year and have a chance to win this championship and maybe pulling that off, then I will have my shot back at Sprint Cup series one day, but right now I need to focus on the job at hand and that’s doing this,” Sadler said. “I know if I don’t do this right and do this correctly that shot may never come again. I’ve had some good rides in Cup and man, I’ve had some situations I don’t ever want to get myself in again. So the right situation’s got to come along to be a Cup driver again. Will that happen? I don’t know.
“But right now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing, I had fun last year with Kevin and DeLana, good racers, I’ve had fun so far because I’ve been friends with (team owner) Richard (Childress) for a long time, had fun so far working with these guys getting ready for this season and I think we’re going to have a good season. I think it’s going to be fun.”