Elliott Sadler is having the worst season of his Sprint Cup career, 29th in points, without a top-15 finish in 21 races. It's a difficult situation for Sadler, exacerbated by this being the final year of his contract with Richard Petty Motorsports and his search for a new team during a harsh economic time in NASCAR.
Sadler desperately needs to align with an organization that can turn his once-promising career around. At 35, he's reached the crossroads -- one headed toward competitiveness and another that would destine him to running at the back for teams that use start and park to stay alive.
There aren't many seats available that can provide Sadler with the type of equipment and personnel he requires to put top-fives and top-10s on the scoreboard. Sadler is a good restrictor plate driver and he might even be able to pull off a victory at Daytona or Talladega if things fall his way.
Sadler has some assets to bring to a team. With 414 starts in Cup races, he has the experience to contribute in a multi-car team. With three career victories and a Chase appearance in 2004, he has credibility; he knows what it takes to win even if he still isn't doing it. He's regarded as a good teammate and is well-liked in the garage by owners, drivers and crew members -- and by sponsors. You're getting a solid citizen in Elliott Sadler.
But he's been slowly sliding down the statistical charts for five years. He was 13th in points in 2005, his last full season with Robert Yates Racing. Sadler began 2006 with Yates Racing, didn't like what he saw early, and made a midseason switch to Evernham Motorsports. He stayed with the organization through its multitude of changes, from Gillett Evernham to Petty Motorsports on the ownership side and from Dodge to Ford. He's been in the 20s in points the past four seasons, and finished a career-low 26th in points last year with one top-five and five top-10 finishes.
Sadler has infrequently driven in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series after becoming a full-time Cup driver in 1999 with the Wood Brothers. But this year, he's made five starts for Kevin and DeLana Harvick's front-running truck team and last week he won at Pocono. It was his first victory in NASCAR since a Cup win at the Pop Secret 500 in 2004.
It was a vital win for Sadler at this stage of his career. Yes, it's truck and the fields aren't as deep as those on the Nationwide and Cup, but he finished ahead of runner-up Kasey Kahne, ninth-place Denny Hamlin and the truck regulars that include Todd Bodine, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Johnny Sauter. It showed Sadler still belongs in Cup.
"It's hard to put into words what this means to me," he said in Victory Lane. "I'll be honest, tears filled up my eyes when I crossed the start/finish line. I've had a tough couple of years in the Cup Series, and until Kevin and DeLana gave me the opportunity to drive the number 2 truck for [Kevin Harvick Inc.], I haven't had many opportunities to run up front, lead laps and win races.
"You sit at home a lot wondering if you're ever going to make it back to Victory Lane. I know that it's easy to say because it just happened today, but I feel that this is the biggest win of my career. There's a lot of naysayers out there and there's a lot of people that write me off, not giving me a chance to make a comeback and be a strong presence again in this sport."
Sadler was in need of a liter-sized shot of confidence and he got it at Pocono.
"To be able to come here and sit on the pole and win the race against people like Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin, who I think are two of the best race car drivers we have in our sport, means a great deal to me," Sadler explained.
Whether Sadler's win will help convince a top Cup team owner to put him into a seat is now the question.
Richard Childress has talked of returning to a four-car team, and this would be the best seat available. But it also needs funding and that's why many believe Paul Menard, with sponsorship from his father's home-improvement chain, will move from Richard Petty Motorsports to Richard Childress Racing. Childress Racing worked wonders for Jeff Burton, whose experience has been a great benefit to the entire organization, and Sadler could make a similar contribution. But it seems an unlikely destination for Sadler.
Scott Speed seems to be on shaky ground at Red Bull and the number 82 Toyota would be the next best opportunity for Sadler. With Brian Vickers out with illness, Reed Sorenson has been driving Red Bull's number 83 and that might give him an edge on Sadler. The team might also view Sorenson, 24, as a driver with bigger upside. But what if Vickers can't come back by the start of 2011? Sadler's veteran status would be a nice match with Sorenson.
Sadler would also be a good fit at Penske Racing to mentor Brad Keselowski and support Kurt Busch. But that seat also depends upon funding and Penske not sticking with Sam Hornish Jr.
Kevin Buckler's TRG Motorsports would be next on the food chain. It's a team whose budget dictates a partial season of start and park, which is why BobbyLabonte departed for four races (he returned at Pocono to finish 22nd, but he's driving for James Finch's Phoenix Racing this weekend at Watkins Glen).
There might be other opportunities -- at Front Row Motorsports or Tommy Baldwin Racing, for example -- but they're not the kind of teams Sadler needs. Like TRG, none of them have the resources to match Sadler's current situation.
Sadler declared at Chicagoland that he was leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, saying, "I don't fit into their future plans." But the next day, Petty Motorsports Vice President of Operations Robbie Loomis said Sadler was among three or four drivers under consideration for 2011. Given his options, it's something Sadler should seriously consider if offered.
Sadler could land on his feet if Red Bull or Penske offer him a job, but both are long shots. Sadler's reputation for being attractive to sponsors might help entice an organization like TRG, but in regard to resources they are several years away from getting Sadler back to where he is now. It's also possible Sadler will become the odd-man out -- amongst regulars like Scott Riggs, Labonte and Casey Mears, who have had to move into small teams in recent years -- in 2011.
A few years ago, with abundant sponsorship pouring into Cup races, rides for drivers needing a chance to revive their careers were available. Now those seats are scarce.