Elliott Sadler could not have imagined a better life than the one he was living in 2004 and 2005. After slowly moving up through the NASCAR ranks, Sadler finally found himself driving for a top-tier team -- Robert Yates Racing -- in the Sprint Cup Series. He won twice in 2004 and made the Chase for the Championship, and though he went winless a year later, he remained solidly competitive.
Sadler turned 30 in 2005 and appeared headed for at least a decade of living out his childhood dreams. Everything he had hoped for in his racing career was coming true, and he couldn't have been happier. He must have felt a lot like George Clooney's character in the movie
"You know what? You're a damn NASCAR Sprint Cup racer. Is there anything better in the world?"
Five tumultuous years later, Sadler often thought there wasn't anything worse in the world. A perfect storm of events had sunk Sadler's Sprint Cup career, to the point that in 2010 he managed only one top-10 finish the entire season. Being in a race car was no longer fun for Sadler, and the bad times were affecting him off the track as well.
"That was a tough, tough time in my life," Sadler recalled. "My wife and I felt like we were standing at the edge of a cliff just waiting for somebody to push us off the side of it. We went from being a Chase contender to not knowing what's around the corner."
It turned out that the corner Sadler had to take was behind him, not in front. To rediscover happiness at the race track Sadler took a step back to the Nationwide Series, where had won five times in the late 1990s. It was a decision he made with great trepidation.
"I was sitting on the fence trying to make my decision two years ago whether to stay in Cup with an underfunded team or to take a step back into the Nationwide Series with a great sponsor and great team [Richard Childress Racing]," Sadler said. "I had to decide which one would make me happier?"
It has become obvious that Sadler made the right choice. After finishing a close second to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the 2011 Nationwide championship, Sadler leads this year's points standings and has three victories, including last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Sadler may no longer be at the top of the NASCAR mountain, but he is certainly enjoying the view from where he sits.
"Mentally, I'm in a totally different state than what I was a couple of years ago," Sadler said. "Now we know we're going to show up at the track with a competitive car and have a chance to lead some laps and win the race. We know all these positive things, and it's transcended through my whole life. It's made my life better at home and at the track. I just feel like I'm a different person. I'm not carrying the burden that I had two or three years ago."
Sadler's issues began when Yates decided to sell his race team near the end of the 2006 season. Sadler spent time driving for Ray Evernham and then Richard Petty, but he was unable to find success in either situation. By 2010, the joy he had experienced his entire life whenever he climbed into a race car was gone.
"My last year in Cup was very tough," Sadler said. "We didn't know if we were going to make it to the race each weekend. We were racing older parts, older cars. Just a lot of hand-me-down stuff. You just can't compete at a high level like that. It was so hard to race that way. It put us in some tough situations and took a lot of the fun out of it."
With his Sprint Cup prospects looking dim, Sadler had to decide whether he should take a detour through the Nationwide Series. For advice, he turned to his old teammate at Robert Yates Racing, Dale Jarrett, who had gone through a similar situation 20 years earlier. In 1990, after spending three seasons in Cup racing, Jarrett found himself without a ride. So he began the season on the Nationwide circuit (then known as the Busch Series), where he posted two victories and 14 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.
A revitalized Jarrett quickly found his way back to Cup racing and to new levels of success. He picked up his first Cup victory in 1991, won the Daytona 500 in 1993 and captured the series championship in 1999. By the time he retired in 2008, Jarrett had accumulated 32 Cup victories and finished in the top five of the point standings seven times.
"Elliott called for some advice, and I told him what I had gone through and how I had been able to handle it and really benefit from it in the long run," Jarrett said. "When you're a competitor and you're not competing at the high level you've grown accustomed to, then it starts affecting you in a lot of different ways. It affects your family life and the type of person you are. And anytime it starts affecting that, it starts affecting your ability to do your job, too.
"There were a lot of things that I went through at that time. You really have to dig deep within yourself. I told him it doesn't do any good to be in front of Cup people if you're just driving around and you're not competitive. Working your way to the Cup Series is so hard that once you're there it's difficult to take a step back. But sometimes we have to do that."
Sadler said the discussions with Jarrett helped convince him to abandon the sinking ship his Sprint Cup career had become and attempt to revive himself in the Nationwide Series.
"I leaned on Dale Jarrett a lot," Sadler said. "He helped me realize that I'd be a lot happier being in the Nationwide Series in a competitive ride with a really good race team. I figured it would be a lot more fun and I could be myself again and concentrate on being more of a race car driver.
"Fast forward two years later, and we've won races, we're in contention [for the championship], we've won poles, we have a lot of top fives and top 10s. We're competing at a very high level, and man is this fun."
Sadler's immediate goal is to win the Nationwide championship this season, which would be his first title of any kind since he was the track champ at South Boston (Va.) Speedway in 1995. Beyond that, Sadler still has aspirations of taking another shot at Sprint Cup racing if the right opportunity comes along.
"Of course it's still in my mind that if I ever get the chance to go back to the Cup Series, in the right situation with the right race team, I would definitely look at that very seriously," Sadler said. "But I also know that if I don't win some more races this year and make a good run at this championship, then that day might never come.
"So the goal in front of me right now is to perform week in and week out, and to enjoy what I'm doing. The biggest life lesson I have taken from all this is that I took for granted driving [in Sprint Cup]. At a young age like that, you just think that's the way everything is supposed to happen, and I really took it for granted. I promise you, I do not take that for granted anymore."
That's probably one of the reasons Sadler competed in last Sunday's race at Chicagoland despite suffering from a stomach virus that he said had him at about 60 percent. At 37, he knows he has only so many chances left to drive on the NASCAR level, and there was no way he was going to sit out the race.
"You couldn't drag me out of this car for anything," Sadler said from Victory Lane.
That's because Sadler is once again a competitive NASCAR driver. And as far as he is concerned, regardless of the series, there is nothing better in the world.