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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Elliott Sadler

Elliott Sadler Age: 31
0 wins, 1 top 5, 7 top 10’s, 11 top 15’s
Avg start: 17.5 Avg finish: 23.1
Points: 22nd Driver Rating: 69.2
#19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Crew Chief: Josh Browne

Things happen quickly at the Cup level in NASCAR. For evidence look at the last year and a half for Elliott Sadler.
After making the Chase and winning two races in 2004, Sadler spent the first half of 2005 inside the top 10. Then he went without a top ten finish for ten races, dropping him from Chase contention. The aero issues, prominent in 2006, began surfacing in 2005. Further, Sadler’s crew chief Todd Parrott was moved to Dale Jarrett’s car for the final ten races, before Parrott moved to Petty Enterprises. This planted a seed of frustration for Sadler.

One year ago Sadler won his qualifying heat at Daytona and finished fourth in the Daytona 500. It was a nice start to a season that soured quickly. It was evident that Robert Yates Racing had fallen behind on the intermediate tracks that comprise the bulk of the schedule. Sadler and Dale Jarrett could compete at Daytona and Talladega along with the short tracks, but once the tour visited Texas or Charlotte they were back markers. In 22 races with Yates Sadler didn’t have a top ten at an intermediate track. The frustration had grown for not only Sadler but teammate and close friend Dale Jarrett. When Jarrett announced plans in May to leave Robert Yates Racing after 2006 for Toyota, Sadler also began researching his options with other teams.

After three and a half seasons at Robert Yates, Elliott Sadler moved to Evernham Motorsports in August. He left on a good note, finishing 7th at Watkins Glen in his final race for Yates. He also was reluctant to publicly discuss his parting, instead trying to make the spilt as amicable as possible.

Things began well in the #19 car too. Sadler started 2nd and finished 10th in his first race at Michigan. The strong car was reportedly due to Evernham’s personal battle with the departed Jeremy Mayfield. Whatever the case, it was still the first top ten for the #19 team. More importantly the finish returned the team to the top 35 in owner’s points.

The finishes didn’t necessarily show improvement, but Sadler’s driver ratings in the first six races averaged 83.8, with a high of 95.1 at Dover. It’s not numbers to get excited about, but much steadier than the car had run prior to Sadler. As the year progressed, the team switched to testing mode and the results suffered. He didn't score a top ten in the final eight races.

Sadler joined a team that had a brand new crew in 2006. The end of the year was spent getting Sadler on the same page as Browne and the team. It is hard to gauge the team’s progress based solely on the results. What, and how much, the team learned at the end of 2006 should show up in the first four races in 2007.

Both Sadler and Dale Jarrett felt the largest need at Yates was more engineering support. Now that both have moved to new teams, it’s interesting that each of their new crew chiefs have engineering backgrounds. How Sadler and team director Josh Browne communicate will be a huge part of any success in 2007.

In good equipment Sadler is a proven front runner. He has won at Bristol, California and Texas, but is also strong at Martinsville and restrictor plate tracks Daytona and Talladega. He has also had several strong runs at Dover, leading 186 laps, although his finishes haven’t always justified the good runs. Evernham’s intermediate program was one of the best in 2006, winning 6 races and 8 poles at 1.5 and 2 mile tracks. With a full season, Sadler should resume running up front at the aero-sensitive speedways. Sadler has also developed into a very good qualifier with seven career poles.

Sadler made the Chase in 2004 and spent the first half of 2005 in the top 10, based on patiently finishing races. A monumental swoon in the summer cost him a second Chase berth and Sadler is yet to regain that consistency. His first step is finishing races. He had 3 combined DNF’s in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he suffered 7.

A new team with a different approach is exactly what Sadler was looking for. Now that he has his wish, it is up to him to get the results. Evernham is an improving organization but there are still weaknesses. Sadler is a proven driver that could surprise in 2007. A win is possible, but not expected. A realistic goal is 3-4 top 5’s and 10-15 top ten finishes. He has an outside chance at making the Chase, but realistically will probably need another year for his team to jell.

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