FONTANA, Calif. Elliott Sadler has an appointment to be fitted for a tuxedo.
After winning the Pop Secret 500 Sunday night at California Speedway and all but nailing down a spot in NASCAR's new Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff, Sadler could hardly contain his excitement about a possible trip to New York City in December for the annual postseason awards banquet.
Only the top 10 in the points get to go on stage at the gala, and Sadler is ready right now.
''I've been in racing a couple of years now and I never got to go to New York,'' Sadler said. ''I'm going to go get my tuxedo next weekend and I'm going to get all fitted up so I can look all snazzy when I go up on stage in New York.''
First, though, he has a little business to take care of.
If Sadler simply starts Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway, he will lock up his spot in the top 10. Once that is done, the 29-year-old driver from Emporia, Va., has a considerably higher goal.
''I think we can win the championship,'' said Sadler, who has never finished better than 20th in the points in his first five years in NASCAR's top stock car series.
Todd Parrott, his crew chief and the man who guided Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett to a title in 1999, agrees.
''Getting into the top 10 is a goal that we set out to do at the start of the year,'' Parrott said. ''If we finish 10th in the points, that's a great accomplishment. But I think we have a shot to win the championship.''
Both Sadler and Parrott pointed to the team's consistency as the reason for their confidence.
Since beginning the season with a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500, Sadler's No. 38 Ford has never been out of the top 10. He is the only full-time driver in the series who has been running at the end of every race and, going into Richmond, Sadler has two wins, seven top fives and 11 top 10s in 25 races.
Sadler, in his second season with the Yates team, gives a lot of the credit to Parrott, who began to work with the driver late last season after a year filled with chaos and disappointment.
''The best decision we made was bringing him on board at the end of last year to give me and him some races to work together because the first four or five races we didn't understand each other,'' Sadler said. ''We were kind of speaking different languages and we both kind of put our feelings on our sleeves when we were talking about the race car. We had to overcome that.
''The more we worked together, the better we got. When we showed up at Daytona this year, man, we were just in the full groove and getting better and better.''
While Sadler is all but in the new playoff, there remain plenty of questions marks heading to Richmond.
Only the top 10 drivers in the points following that race will be eligible to compete for the title over the final 10 races. Eight drivers remain in the running for the final three spots.
Kasey Kahne finished second Sunday, followed by Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman. That moved Newman to eighth, with Kahne ninth, Martin 10th and McMurray on the outside looking in, just 25 points back in 11th.
The drivers who took the biggest hit in the race were Kevin Harvick, who finished 28th and fell from eighth to 15th, 56 points behind Martin, and Bobby Labonte, whose 21st-place run Sunday dropped him from ninth to 12th, 36 points out of 10th.
Also in the hunt are 13th-place Jarrett, who finished eighth in the race, and 14th-place Jeremy Mayfield, who was 16th.
While those drivers all head for Richmond with their nerves on edge and a lot to lose, Sadler can relax and enjoy the opportunity to race in front of the home folks.
''The pressure is off,'' Sadler said. ''We are in the Chase. That was our goal. Now, we're going to have fun, race hard and whatever happens, happens.''
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