RICHMOND, Va.— Halfway through NASCAR's 26-race playoff qualifying system, Virginian Elliott Sadler was third in the points race and seemingly on his way to a second consecutive run into the 10-race Chase for the championship.
Now, the Emporia native has faded to 13th with one race remaining before the field for the Chase is set, and taking a nothing-to-lose approach in his home state.
"I feel like going to Richmond there's only one thing we can do and that's go to try and win the race," Sadler, 52 points out of the top 10, said this week.
"We can't really worry about the points. We can't really worry about who we're racing and who we're not racing. We just need to go up there and run the best way we can, whether it's taking chances like two tires or four tires or whatever."
Sadler's fade from the top 10 started in the 17th race, at Daytona, when he fell from third to fourth. He dropped another spot the next week at Chicago, then all the way to ninth a week later after a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire.
Two races later, he was out of the top 10 for good. He'll go into Saturday night's Chevrolet 400 as the third driver outside the top 10 with a chance to get in. Ryan Newman is 11th, a point behind Jamie McMurray, and Jeff Gordon is 12th, 30 back.
"I feel like the pressure is not on us," Sadler said. "I think the guys that are only one or 11 points behind or 10 points ahead of 10th place have more pressure."
But Sadler isn't yielding the spot by any means. He came to Richmond to test last week, and is feeling better about his fortunes here than he probably ever has.
"I had a career weekend in Richmond in the spring," he said, when he finished second in the Busch race and a career-best seventh in the Nextel Cup event.
"I'm going home," he added. "I feel real comfortable racing at Richmond. I've got a lot of home fans that are going to be pulling for us and rooting for us, and I can't think of a better place to try to go and make something happen. We'll see."
Sadler need only look at this race a year ago for more inspiration.
Jeremy Mayfield arrived here 14th in points last season, won for the first time in more than four years and got into the top 10 by 31 points.
"Those guys showed that you don't give up until the very last lap and we're not either," Sadler said. "Nobody knows what's gonna happen. That's why we race 400 laps."
Being the underdog also has benefits.
"It's theirs to lose and ours to win and that's a good position to be in," he said.
Sadler isn't the only one drawing hope from Mayfield's surge.
Newman finished third here in the spring in a backup car, also tested here last week and is hoping a solid history on the D-shaped oval will give him an edge.
"Hopefully, we can pull a Jeremy Mayfield on all of them," he said.
Gordon, a four-time champion and the driver drawing the most prerace attention, said after a poor run at California last week that his team doesn't deserve a spot if it can't get its act together, and put the challenge to them all this week.
"Our work is definitely cut out for us," he said. "We need to have a great car, great pit stops, great pit strategy and great communication throughout the weekend.
"Basically, everything needs to go right for us to have a chance."
Having the race at Richmond, a three-quarter-mile oval that many have compared to a small superspeedway, only adds to the intrigue with so much on the line, he said.
"We're all going to be racing hard for every position. You can race side-by-side lap after lap here, but it's still a short track and anything can happen," he said.
"I didn't want to be in this position."
IROC WINNER: A third restart worked for Mark Martin, and he edged out Kurt Busch to win the International Race of Champions event Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Busch, the reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup champion and a teammate to Martin in that series, appeared on the way to an easy victory in the 90-lap race. He took the lead on the third lap on the three-quarter-mile oval and stayed out front nearly to the end.
But it was Martin, a four-time IROC champion, who wound up beating Busch in a two-lap shootout after the last of six caution flags in the race. Martin won by just 0.021-seconds — less than two feet — in the race for identically prepared IROC Pontiacs.