Sadler sees his team getting back in the hunt

Optimistic that good times are straight ahead, Elliott Sadler is ready for Speed Weeks. That doesn't, however, mean he spent his all-too-brief offseason thinking about his Robert Yates Racing Ford.

No, Sadler had hunting on his brain back home in Emporia, Va., in November and December. And when he's out with his dogs, racing isn't a priority.

"To be honest with you, when I'm in the woods hunting, I don't know much about racing. I'm hunting," Sadler said. "That's time away. I think if we carried racing with us all the time, we'd be high strung and wound up more than we already are. When I go to Emporia, Va., I'm in Emporia, Va., and we don't talk about racing, we don't relate each track, what we did right or what we did wrong. It's just time that I can spend with my family and my friends. I don't get to see my nieces that much during the season, or my mom and dad, but that's what we talk about when I'm at home."

Sadler didn't spend his time wondering why he and teammate Dale Jarrett struggled throughout the year, while Roush Racing placed all five of its Fords in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The teams have combined their engine programs, with RYR's Doug Yates heading up the process.

Yet instead of being frustrated, Sadler sees it as something of a positive that the Roush cars did so well in 2005.

"It makes us want to work harder. I don't know if it's frustrating because I like to see Doug Yates motors run good, whether it's in our cars or Jack's [Roush] cars," Sadler said. "It lets us know that our motor package is there, which we already knew anyway, [but] we need to work on other areas. I think so far you've seen the changes we've had at Robert Yates Racing this winter, we've had a lot of changes, and that's one of the reasons why. Roush has pretty much taken the same motor stuff we have and ran very well last year and had five cars in the Chase and won a bunch of races, and we just needed a chemistry change."

Sadler now has Tommy Baldwin as his crew chief, while teammate Jarrett has Slugger Labbe calling the shots. The team has also worked to bolster its aero program, hoping to find out just what it was that made Roush's cars so dominant last year.

After making the inaugural Chase in '04, Sadler was solidly in the mix to do so again last year before the bottom started falling out in July and August. Eventually, he fell out of the top 10. Jarrett's struggles were even more pronounced before he won at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

Still, Sadler said last season is being used as motivation.

"No, we're not looking at it, hanging our heads and just going in the corner and pouting about it -- we're trying to make changes and we're trying to work harder, trying to close the gap up a little bit, so that's what we've done this winter," Sadler said. "I can sit here right now and say we think it's going to work, we think our team's going to be better, but I really won't be able to tell you until we get to Homestead whether that's going to happen or not. But I really like the organization that my team has right now, and we'll see how it all affects us on the race track."

Jarrett is just as optimistic, though he admits there are a lot of unknowns on his team. Jarrett said improvement will be the name of the game at RYR this year.

"If you look at it, we've improved our team immensely in a lot of areas," Jarrett said. "We have a better product with the Ford Fusion. We have a better engineering staff than we've ever had at Robert Yates Racing, and we have two very hungry crew chiefs that have come in to take over and lead this group. So I would say that the potential is there for both teams to be in the top 10 and make the Chase, it's just a matter of us going out and making that happen now."

Sadler is optimistic to the point where he tries not to even think back to last season, saying there have been so many changes that there's really no point in trying to compare the current state of RYR to what was there last year.

Of course, a fast start to the season will justify that optimism.

"I don't feel like we've got the same mentality, the same chemistry, the same team, anything," Sadler said. "It's just a whole new outlook on racing. And [at Daytona], we just want to get out of the blocks strong; I think that's very important. You don't want to feel like you've got to dig yourself out of a hole each and every week. So, we're excited, just like every other team, because we're all tight at the moment, to come into Daytona and really get off to a good start and put our best foot forward.

"I've been very impressed with my team, how hard they've worked this winter, and going to the shop and seeing all the cars we have lined up, and the organization. Our team is so organized right now, it's unbelievable, and I can't wait to feel the effects of that, and I think that'll help us in the long run more this year."

If the optimism is to be justified, Sadler and Baldwin will have to quickly adapt to working together. At the moment, that's the least of Sadler's concerns.

"He's a very determined, very focused person and very open. He's just like me, I think," Sadler said. "I feel like I'm looking at myself in the mirror when talking to him because he doesn't mind telling you what's on his mind and kind of the plan that he wants to do, and I'm the same way. So, we've kind of hit it off pretty good.

"I love his ideas and I love his enthusiasm. He feels like he has a lot to prove and I feel like I've got a lot to prove, and we're very determined to make the Chase this year."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com