When Elliott Sadler and car owner Joe Gibbs see Talladega, they see Sadler’s history of polls, laps led and — maybe, just maybe — a chance to show he belongs back on NASCAR’s top circuit.
So, maybe it’s not so crazy that the veteran driver, who has hung near the top of the Nationwide Series the past three years, has both Talladega races among his three-race Sprint Cup schedule for this season.
“I feel like we can go to Talladega and lead some laps and compete for the win, so I’m glad it’s part of our limited schedule,” Sadler said. “Hopefully, we’ll turn some heads this weekend and be able to add some more races as the year goes on.”
Assuming Sadler qualifies his No. 81 Alert Energy Toyota, it’ll be in the field of 43 Gen-6 cars that take on Talladega’s 2.66-mile tri-oval in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. He could be among four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers.
If Sadler wins Sunday, that would be news. He hasn’t won a Cup race since 2004, and Sunday’s race would mark his third Cup start in two years and second this season.
None of his three Cup victories came at Talladega, where he has averaged a finish of 23.6 over 23 starts.
Then again, Sadler has three poles, one top-five finish and four top-10s at Talladega, and he’s led 124 laps.
Sadler got a three-race Cup shot this year thanks to a familiar sponsor. Alert Energy is a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., which also decorated his cars with M&M’s and other brands when he drove for Robert Yates from 2003 to August 2006.
The journeyman driver who first broke into Cup racing in 1998 got a Nationwide ride with Gibbs for this year, and Gibbs found Sadler’s limited Cup availability most useful at Kansas and Talladega. No doubt, a fourth car could help the Gibbs team in the Talladega draft.
Gibbs also has Matt Kenseth, who won last fall’s race at Talladega.
The chance for 38-year-old Sadler to mash one foot to the Cup floor again comes at a time when he has more motivation than ever to produce in NASCAR. He has a 3-year-old son, and his daughter turns 2 in November.
“I don’t want to be a failure for my kids,” he said two weeks ago before a crash doomed him to a 40th-place finish at Kansas. “I want to be someone they can look up to and I feel like the last three years, I’m a better race car driver now mentally and physically than I was eight or nine years ago.”
Sadler said he has a “great opportunity” with Gibbs and feels “like a kid in a candy store all over again.”
“It means a lot to me personally for them to give me this opportunity where they can evaluate me in their equipment, and we’ll just take it from there,” Sadler said.
Sadler taking it to Talladega takes the mind back to horrific crashes.
Who can forget 2003, when his M&M’s machine went airborne over the back-stretch grass, landed on its roof and slid back onto the banking before flipping six times?
Then came another Talladega tumble in 2004, when he touched grass again and landed on his roof just ahead of the finish line on the last lap of the EA Sports 500.
Sadler said big wrecks are the risk that comes with racing at NASCAR’s two restrictor-plate tracks, Talladega and Daytona, but he can relate the experience better than most.
“Any time you go upside down in a racecar, it’s a lot different than a normal wreck,” he said. “Everything goes very quiet, and what is actually a few seconds seems like a few minutes.
“Typically, when we wreck, you hit hard once, on the initial impact, and then everything else after isn’t as intense.”
So Sadler’s first goal at Talladega “is definitely to keep all four wheels on the ground,” he said. “I think I’ve tested enough safety equipment out to last me a while.”
The next goal is to be a useful teammate for Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers.
“The biggest thing about having teammates at a place like Talladega is that you never want your teammates to get hurt or wrecked during the course of the race while they are helping you,” Sadler said. “The guys I have as teammates all seem to be really good in the draft. … Adding a fourth car, if we get our four cars together, hopefully, we will be fast and then we’ll make it hard on the other guys to gang up on us and beat us.”
But Sadler has another goal in mind for Talladega, one that he has never accomplished. He wants to do more than look good in JGR equipment, and he has every reason to go for it.
“We’re going to Talladega to win and showcase Alert Energy,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about points, so it’s all or nothing for us this weekend.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.