CONCORD, N.C. -- For most of the 1999 Winston Cup season, Elliott Sadler has been overshadowed by fellow rookie Tony Stewart. That's changing this week as NASCAR prepares for its longest race.
While Stewart has had a difficult week as he tries to get set up to run both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, Sadler is trying to capitalize on his best qualifying run of the season.
Sadler hadn't started higher than 13th for any race this year, but he earned the fourth spot for the 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway at Charlotte.
"The car was actually better than the driver was. The car had a legitimate shot at the pole, but the driver messed up," Sadler said. "But we're pretty happy with our showing so far. It's something we can build on."
So far, Stewart's been the rookie building all the momentum in 1999. He has one pole and four top-10 finishes, including two top-fives in the last three races. Eleven races into the schedule, he's seventh in the 1999 driver standings and the runaway leader in the rookie-of-the-year rankings.
Sadler, meantime, has just one top-10 and is a distant 36th in the points.
"Tony's doing a great job. He's setting a whole new level for rookies," Sadler said. "It's tough on some of us to try to get in there. Some of us adapt fast. Some of us don't, but I'm giving it 100 percent."
Sadler's qualifying run represented just the third time this season he has outperformed Stewart in time trials. Stewart, who will start 27th at Charlotte, also has had problems at Indianapolis. He was viewed as a likely contender for the pole, but he crashed last week in practice and subsequently earned just the 24th starting spot.
Sadler can identify with that. His starting positions have been in the 30s three times this season, the 20s twice and the 40s once. Three weeks into the year, he had no starts better than 25th and no finishes better than 33rd in his Wood Brothers Ford Tauruses.
"I felt so sorry for these guys because they've taken a chance on me. I haven't felt that bad in a long time," he said. "The first couple of races of the year, I felt like I was letting the whole team down."
Crew chief Mike Beam said the team has turned things around, thanks in large part to the diligence of Sadler, 24, a five-time winner in 76 starts on the Busch Grand National circuit.
"Elliott's so into the game," Beam said. "He's so focused. He catches things. He brings a lot to the table as far as things he just absorbs. He's shown progress every week."
Sadler started 13th and finished 10th at Texas in late March, and since then he has had no finishes of worse than 28th. He has been running at the end of nine consecutive races.
"I'm learning something each week," he said. "It would be different if we were just running and not learning anything, just looking at each other and shrugging our shoulders. But we're actually learning a lot about each other and about these race cars."
Beam said the team is poised for a strong run over the remainder of the season. Sadler, who has been consistently fast in practice this week, thinks he can carry that over to Sunday's 400-lap event.
"I want to run the whole 600 miles," he said. "We've got a good race car. We're going to try to stay up front as much as we can Sunday. If we can't, we want to stay out of trouble so maybe we can fix it by the end of the race. You're not going to do anything unless you're around at the end."
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