NASCAR drivers are a superstitious breed, and Elliott Sadler might have violated the laws of jinx.
After avoiding mechanical trouble and accidents for most of the season, Elliott Sadler's making up for lost time. Tire troubles last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway left Sadler with a 37th-place finish. Sunday in New Hampshire, accidents on pit road and on the track relegated the Robert Yates Racing driver to a 39th-place effort.
Sadler has dropped from a perch at third in the standings to ninth faster than he could say he was happy to be having a season devoid of mechanical problems and accidents.
Sadler said he isn't going to get preoccupied with the struggles, though.
"Right now our focus has to be these final [races] before the Chase [for the Nextel Cup] starts and solidifying our spot in the top 10," he said.
Sadler was enjoying one of the smoothest seasons of his career, running with the leaders and sticking around among the top three in the standings. Even though team owner Robert Yates was concerned about the slow improvements out of his No. 88 Ford team, he found solace in the fact that crew chief Todd Parrott and Sadler were so spot-on.
Sadler felt so invincible, he committed a no-no in sports. He spoke too soon.
"My guys this year have done a great job on the mechanical end," he said after practicing the day before the Chicagoland race. "We haven't had anything fall off the cars, we haven't had any problems, I've had great pit stops, no lug nuts coming loose, and we've had great engine success this year, no drive-train problems -- and that's a great place to start."
And it was for about 17 races, but Chicagoland came and the tire went flat on Sadler's consistent season. In that race, Sadler cut a right front and went behind the wall for 57 laps while his team tried to fix the ensuing damage. On Sunday, contact with Mark Martin sent Sadler spinning into the wall hard.
Sadler wasn't happy afterward. But he maintains an eye on the prize. And he's also happy that, even while he's in the midst of a bit of a stumble, his teammate, Dale Jarrett, has been on a climb upward. Jarrett is just one spot behind Sadler in 10th position and would make the cut for the playoffs if it were made today.
"The past two races the No. 88 Team has done a great job," Sadler said. "It's great to see that team do well and get back into the top 10. We want to have both of the Robert Yates cars in the Chase this season and we've got a lot of testing planned over the next couple of weeks to help us accomplish that."
Sadler said he doesn't believe his crew has let up or that he's making poor decisions on the track. The simple fact is that it's difficult to have good luck span 36 races, so making the Chase and winning a title becomes about weathering those weekends when things don't go your way. And while Sadler's latest disappointing day dropped him four spots in the standings, he's still among the top 10 and strategizing on how to stay there.
Following Chicagoland and Loudon, Sadler and Co. want to focus on intermediate-sized tracks.
"We've not run as well on mile-and-a-halfs this year as we did last year," Sadler said. "Last year that was a big-time strong suit of ours, and this year' we've struggled a little bit on mile-and-a-halfs. But, we are getting better and we are doing a lot of testing on those style of racetracks because that used to be our strong point."
The No. 38 team's confidence is up despite the finishes being down. And while the boys are looking for a win to get the momentum really going, Salder said nobody has lost sight of what has made this such a solid year.
"We want to run up as much as we can," Sadler said, "but we're more focused on running every lap, seeing the checkered flag, and then we get down towards the end of the race and we get my car where we need to have it, then we go race hard and see how many positions we can pick up."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.