Sadler enjoying role at champ

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   For the first time in his Winston Cup career, Elliott Sadler gets to come to a race as the defending champion when he takes the grid Sunday in the Food City 500.
   "I want to come here and see my face on the program for the first time," said Sadler on Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "We've had this race notched on our belts since the beginning of the season. I'm enjoying this week very well so far and am looking for to a great race weekend. I hope we run well."
   Sadler is coming off a great run at Darlington in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, where he finished runner-up to NASCAR points leader Sterling Marlin. "I can't think of a better way to come to Bristol than a second place finish at Darlington," said the Emporia, Va. driver. "Last week at Darlington was our race best weekend ever in Winston Cup racing.
   "We qualified sixth, did really good in "Happy Hour" and finished second. It was just a really smooth weekend. We were pumped up anyway coming to this race track. We always run well here."
   He's been taking a little extra care of his No. 21 Motorcraft Ford this week hoping to finish one spot higher. "I've been in the shop all week long," Sadler stated. "Bristolizing my car is what I call it, putting extra pads for this race around my legs and stuff. The guys are pumped up. We want to keep it going. The last three finishes we've had are really, really good finishes. We are trying to keep that string going."
   Besides his success in the race car, Bristol is also the site where Elliott met his fiancé Lisa Tollet, a former Ms. Food City. The personal memories and a win in the NASCAR Busch Series here back in 1998, made this his favorite stop on the tour even before last season.
   "I've always said that it was my favorite track," said Sadler. "Look at it. Where else can you race at with this many fans on top of you? Everybody at Food City treats me like family every time we come here. They helped me meet Lisa, because she won the pageant to do that. I love it and I loved winning the race last spring. It's a fun, fun place."
   In the 2001 event, Sadler scored several firsts. It was his first career win in 75 tries, the first win for crew chief Pat Tryson and the first BMS win for his legendary car owners, the Wood Brothers. The victory was the first anywhere for the Woods since Atlanta in 1993 with driver Morgan Shepard.
   "That meant a lot to me," commented Sadler. "One thing I was brought up on as a kid is the best feeling you're ever going to have as a person is giving back to someone else. When I gave the Wood Brothers, Pat and Motorcraft a win, that's pretty cool. That beats any paycheck or any press or the other perks to being a race car driver. Those smiling faces are the best thing I remember about winning here at Bristol."
   At this year's Daytona 500, Sadler received his biggest career payday after finishing second to Virginia neighbor and fellow outdoorsman Ward Burton. Controversy ensued when NASCAR opted to end this race under green flag conditions, but ended a similar late-race situation the following week at Rockingham under caution.
   "If you ask a driver what to do, we're the worst people to ask," said Sadler, who won over 200 go-kart races in his youth. "We will change our minds every week. If I'm leading the race with five laps to go, I want to end it under caution. If I'm second on new tires and Tony (Stewart) is leading with old tires, yeah, I want a green, white, checkered.
   "That's something that NASCAR has to decide what's better for the sport and what's better for the fans. Whatever they decide is fine for me. I do think that fans pay so much money, that they want to see an exciting green, white, checkered finish. I understand the point at Rockingham. There was a lot of oil on the track."
   Being one of the series' youngest drivers at 26 years old, Sadler can appreciate the success of rookies Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. "When I came in as a rookie, I just tried not to do anything stupid," said Sadler. "I didn't want to cause a 20-car pileup, by bumping and pushing. I wanted to be sensible and make sure I didn't put myself in a bad situation.
   "Until a couple of years ago, I was by far the youngest driver. I wanted to earn the respect the way you should, taking a 20th place car and finishing 20th, not trying to finish 10th and wrecking. We were able to do that. For different people, they have different situations. Being a one-car team, we didn't have people to turn to. I didn't have a veteran second teammate beside me telling me what I needed to do. These young drivers have good, solid teammates."
   Elliott says that racing Late Models on tracks like South Boston, where he was the track champion in 1995, was good preparation for Bristol.
   "I think the way the Late Model Stock car series races helps us," said Sadler. "They run 150 to 200 laps, which gets you used to racing on old tires, the heat and things like that. Plus the competition around southern Virginia and North Carolina is stronger than anywhere else you race at in that division. There are a lot of great race drivers there and it's a good place to get your feet wet."
   Winning here or anywhere else will be difficult as Sadler explains how drivers strategies are now different than when he was a rookie in 1999. "I think racing has changed so much in the last three years," said Sadler. "Some of the tracks you could ride around at 90 percent and save some of your car for the end and have something to race with. That is baloney now. You have to run every lap like it is your last. Every lap has to be like a qualifying run."