Sadler ready for Yates team breakout

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Bristol Motor Speedway is the site of Elliott Sadler's first NASCAR Cup Series win and the site of his biggest career win in the Busch Series. There's a good possibility it could soon be the site of a breakout first win with Robert Yates Racing.
   In his second season driving the No. 38 M&M's Ford Taurus, Sadler is hoping Bristol's high-banked oval will again be the place to achieve high-speed glory.
   "It's a great race track," said Sadler. "This is one of my favorite places to come. Anytime you can go to victory lane, it's great. I just want to do it here again in the M&M's car."
   Three seasons ago Sadler finally achieved a dream of becoming a winner on stock car racing's highest circuit after needing a provisional just to make the field. Special to longtime racing fans was the return of the Wood Brothers No. 21 car to victory lane for the first time in eight seasons.
   "I remember a lot about that race," said Sadler, who scored a non-points win earlier this year in a Daytona qualifying race. "It had been a long time since that car had been to victory lane. It's been a long time now since I have been to victory lane. It was fun and great for the whole team."
   A star basketball player, Sadler actually received an athletic scholarship to James Madison University to play for former Maryland coach Lefty Driessel. He still keeps close tabs on hoops action this time of year along with racing teammate Dale Jarrett, himself a former standout basketball player.
   "I'm one of the biggest basketball fans on the whole circuit," said Sadler. "D.J. and I were looking at our brackets, seeing who we were picking. We know our favorites, who we want to do well. We watch basketball all the time."
   At the time of this interview, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament had just started. Sadler gave us his Final Four picks he had put down.
   "My favorite to win the whole thing is Kentucky," stated Sadler. "I think Oklahoma State will be really good. Pittsburgh is going to shock a lot of people and I like Texas. Duke should play very well. It's hard to pick a definite winner, but if I had to narrow it down to two, it would be Oklahoma State or Kentucky."
   Sadler's Kentucky pick didn't work out when the Wildcats were upset in the second round by Alabama-Birmingham. Elliott knows a thing or two about being upset with an Alabama-related outcome. Last season, he had the most horrific crash of the Winston Cup season with a flipping, grinding crash on Talladega's front stretch.
   He hopes Bristol won't bring a similar result. Sadler has always had a special affection for the .533-mile raceway, attending races here growing up with his father Herman, a Late Model driver in Virginia and older brother Hermie, himself an occasional competitor in the Nextel Cup Series. It is also the place where Elliott as a driver first made Cup Series car owners take notice of his outstanding talent.
   "I won the Busch race here in 1998," said Sadler. "It's a place I've always adapted well too. I drive it differently from almost any other driver. I learned a lot watching Rusty Wallace and use some of his techniques getting around here. He's someone that I've always looked up to and I try to drive my car a lot like him at this track.
   "Everybody has a different feel for every track they go to. This is a track where I feel like I know what I want in my race car. I can give good feedback to Todd and the guys and go from there."
   While Sadler's early racing credentials are impressive with Virginia State Go-Karting Championships and a track title from South Boston (Va.) Speedway, almost all of the drivers at this level can boast similar accomplishments. The team's head wrench Todd Parrott is another story with his 24 Cup Series wins the highest ranking of any active crew chief.
   "He's the winningest active crew chief in the garage and a very demanding crew chief," said Sadler. "I've learned a lot working with him. I'm glad we worked together at the end of last year and got our personalities straight. We went to Daytona this year and started off on the right foot. We had some new pit crew guys come over and we pretty much have a brand new team."
   Asked to evaluate his team's strongest assets and weak points, Sadler responded, "I think we are still working right now on the bodies and getting them up to snuff. The motors are great. Robert (Yates) and Jack (Roush) have done a great job working together. We have great personnel, although there are a lot of new people working together. I think once they all click and get on the same page, our cars and chassis will get so much better."
   Sadler has benefited from being a teammate with 1999 NASCAR Champion Dale Jarrett. While many racing organizations have drivers who call themselves teammates, alliances are often forgotten on the track. Sadler finds his relationship with Jarrett is helped with their friendship and similar interests.
   "I've enjoyed working with Dale," said Sadler. "He's a nice guy and he really knows a lot about the race car. He knows what he wants in a race car and we have some of the same feelings of what we are looking for in the car. He's a great, great person off the track and I've learned so much from him both off and on the track. He's one blown motor from being right in the thick of the points battle right now, but we will both be back strong before the year is out."
   With a new tire at Bristol, Sadler said don't be surprised if someone breaks the amazing qualifying record of a lap under 15 seconds set last year by Ryan Newman. With speeds that fast on a half-mile track, the physical force on the driver will be much greater than in years past when the cars take the green flag for Sunday's Food City 500.
   "We don't have any sense trying to go around here in 15 seconds," said the Emporia, Va. driver. "It will take your breath. I was out of breath during our test making a long run and the guys on the crew were making fun of me. When you go around here for 15 seconds for 50 straight laps, it's tough."