Elliott Sadler relishes his return to Cup racing

dscott@charlotteobserver.comApril 20, 2013 

Elliott Sadler understands the chance that he’s been given in Sunday’s STP 400 at Kansas Speedway.

For the first time since the 2012 Daytona 500, Sadler will compete in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. It’s one of three Cup races Sadler will run as a fourth driver for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” said Sadler. “I feel like a kid in a candy store; almost like it’s the first day of high school.”

Sadler, 32, was a Cup mainstay from 1999 to 2010, making 430 starts and winning three times. But when he lost his ride at Richard Petty Motorsports after the 2010 season, he dropped down to the Nationwide Series. He’s had success there, finishing second to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the series standings in 2011 and ’12 (he’s seventh this season). He drove for Richard Childress Racing last year before signing on with JGR for this season, when he was joined by Brian Vickers.

“He’s just a good fit,” JGR president J.D. Gibbs told NASCAR.com. “Both he and (Brian), they didn’t have to run Nationwide, they could have done some other Cup stuff. But they chose Nationwide to get their stability rebuilt and we really appreciate that. And when you look around to see who’s out there, Elliott’s name goes right to the top pretty quick.”

And Cup is where Sadler wants to be. If JGR wants to help him return there, he understands the resources it takes.

“This takes a lot of effort to do what you call a ‘one-off’ team,” said Sadler, who will run both Talladega Cup races for Gibbs.

“You have to bring extra guys in, you have to build extra cars, you have to do extra research. (Toyota Racing Development) has to build extra engines.”

A lot has changed on the Cup series since Sadler last drove, most notably the introduction this season of the “Gen 6” cars. Sadler said that’s what will take the most getting used to on Sunday.

“I haven’t been in a Cup car for a while,” said Sadler, whose Nationwide crew chief, Chris Gayle, will be on his pit box today. “When I got in it (Friday) morning, it’s a lot different than it was a couple years ago, so it took me a couple laps to get used to it. The Gen-6 car definitely drives a lot different than the last time I’ve been in a Cup car. It’s definitely a fast car.”

There’s been another change in Sadler’s life since his days as a Cup driver. He and wife Amanda had a second child – daughter Austyn in 2011. She’s about a year younger than older brother Wyatt.

“My kids have made me a better race car driver,” he said. “You want your kids to look up to you and you want to set a good example. I don’t want to be a failure for my kids. I want to be someone they can look up to. I feel like the last three years, I’m a better race-car driver – mentally and physically – than I was eight or nine years ago.”

That confidence is spilling over into how Sadler thinks he can fare Sunday – his first Cup race in more than a year.

“We’re not coming here and say if we finish 20th or 25th, (we’d) be happy,” said Sadler. “If I were a rookie and had never raced before, I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a realistic goal that I would be happy with.’

“But being in this series and having won before, we’re coming to Kansas to do the best we can. We’ll throw caution to the wind and take some chances and maybe do some things other teams can’t do. Let’s try to lead some laps and win the race.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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