For Elliott Sadler, it was the most surreal of situations.
The offseason changes to NASCAR's points system that forced drivers to declare which series championship they would compete for came on the heels of Sadler moving full-time to the Nationwide Series for 2011. Suddenly, a driver who had struggled to be competitive in the Sprint Cup Series over the last five seasons was being touted as a title favorite -- and Sadler admits he couldn't have been happier about it.
"I loved being the guy that everybody was talking about as a threat for the championship. It's cool to be in that talk, in those discussions," he said. "Look, we want to race like that. We want to be the team to beat. We want to be the guy that everybody has to ... outrun to win the championship.
"I think if you ask any competitive stick-and-ball player, football, basketball, baseball, what have you, they want to be that guy."
Heading into Nashville this weekend, Sadler is exactly where he was expected to be. While the likes of Kyle Busch (six series wins), Carl Edwards (four) and the rest of the erstwhile Buschwackers can't accrue any series points since they've declared for the Cup title race, Sadler is in contention for his first NASCAR title. The Kevin Harvick Inc. driver leads the Nationwide driver standings by seven points over Reed Sorensen behind 13 top-10 finishes, including nine top-5s, both of which tie Sadler for the second-most among any driver to start a race in the series this season.
"We're in the position we want to be in. We feel very confident about the packages we have," Sadler said, adding, no matter the course, "we feel like we got really good stuff and we're going to make everybody chase us down for the championship."
He could have seen Nationwide as a step down. After all, Sadler was a veteran of 429 Cup starts, who had more than $46 million in career earnings. But after announcing late last season that he would not be returning to Richard Petty Motorsports -- his home for eight seasons in its various forms as Yates Racing, Evernham Motorsports, Gillett Evernham Motorsports and lastly RPM -- he failed to find another Cup ride for 2011. In stepped K.H.I., which is owned by the Richard Childress Racing driver and his wife, DeLana.
The organization had been fielding cars driven by owner Harvick and others for limited entries, but it hadn't fielded a full-time Nationwide team since 2006. Sadler's availability and marketability as a wheelman with three Cup wins under his belt caught K.H.I.'s interest.
Sadler saw it as an opportunity to contend in a way he hadn't been able to since finishing ninth and 13th in 2004 and '05, respectively, in the Cup series. The chance to compete in proven equipment, and the success he's had in it, has Sadler enjoying himself behind the wheel once again.
"The last couple years, it just wasn't that much fun racing; I was in a tough situation -- we all know that," Sadler said. "But to be able to transform and kind of come to this year and have this new attitude, this new outlook to each and every race each weekend, it's been fun for me."
But don't think of it as a major leaguer going back down to the minors and revitalizing his career among players still looking for their big break. While the points rules have changed, the competitors remain the same; 16 of the 19 events have been won by Cup regulars.
"You still have to race against the best in the business," Sadler said. "The guys that race on Sunday that come and race on Saturday, you're still racing door-to-door with these guys. They're just not getting points. The competitive edge on the racetrack is still there because you have to outrun those guys to get the finishes you want. It's just that the points system is a little bit different."
Sadler has delivered in his move to the Nationwide Series in the sense that he's reinvigorated a career that once showed so much promise but had faded into the background in the sport's premier series. He still has designs on returning to Cup, but his focus is on delivering a championship -- though his resume is still missing one very big ingredient: a win. Sadler earned his last Nationwide victory in 1998, his last season in which he ran the majority of his races in NASCAR's second series.
"We're having so much fun doing what we're doing and leading the points," Sadler said. "We're close to where we need to be. We just got to put it all together one weekend."
He'll try to end that drought Saturday night at Nashville, where Sadler will be making his 150th start in the series. Admittedly, Sadler says redemption will be on his mind. In the April stop at the track, Sadler was 13th (his worst effort since coming in 38th in the season opener) but since then he's averaged a 6.9 finish in climbing from sixth to first in the standings.
"It was a great wake-up call to our race team," he said. "We are definitely prepared and better understand what we want out of these cars than we were the first time going to Nashville. ... It's a fun place to race, one of the most exciting trophies in the whole sport with winning the Gibson guitar. We'll definitely have that on our mind when we show up."