DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Elliott Sadler’s season has been about as bumpy as a lap around Daytona International Speedway.

He threatened a lawsuit to keep his ride, nearly won the season-opening Daytona 500 and endured all sorts of changes, cutbacks and layoffs at Richard Petty Motorsports. But Sadler remains upbeat, even with the team’s uncertain future with Dodge.

Why? Because he believes things are about to turn.

“We just need some momentum, we need a little change of direction, we need something really good to happen to this race team,” Sadler said.

Coming off his second 10th-place finish in the last three weeks, Sadler has reason to be optimistic heading into this weekend’s race at Chicago. It also helps that some of his favorite racetracks — Indianapolis, Pocono, Michigan and Bristol — are on the horizon.

Nonetheless, Sadler realizes he’s a long shot to make the Chase for the championship. He’s 23rd in points, well behind the 12th-place cutoff, but not far enough back to give up on the season.

“I’ve still got some unfinished business for this year,” Sadler said. “We’re not too far from 20th, but we need to have some good luck and run as good as we can each and every week.

“Right now, 2010 seems like 10 years away for me. I feel like we still have a lot of racing to do this year before we drop this season and work on next.”

No one, including Sadler, knows what might happen between now and next season.

RPM laid off nine employees last month and reduced salaries throughout the organization, a byproduct of Chrysler’s bankruptcy filing. RPM took the measures because of anticipated cutbacks from Dodge, a subsidiary of Chrysler.

RPM is in the final year of its contract with Dodge, and the team is widely believed to be trying to negotiate a switch to Toyota in 2010. Petty declined to address the speculation last week at Daytona.

RPM currently fields Cup cars for Sadler, Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson and AJ Allmendinger, who are all signed through 2010. The team has funded Allmendinger’s car largely out of pocket all year, and has only committed to run it through the 26th race.

Now that financial backing from Dodge has become a concern, the organization could scale back even more — maybe even drop a team – at any time.

“If you go through some of those bad times, you go through some of that tough stuff and you go through some of that adversity, it makes you appreciate the good weekends even more,” Sadler said.

The good weekends, however, have been scarce.

Sadler finished fifth at Daytona in February, but went the next 14 races without another top-10 finish.

Maybe it took that long to get over his near-win at Daytona. Sadler moved to the front just as the rain neared the superspeedway, all he needed to do was hang onto the lead for another lap.

He couldn’t do it. Matt Kenseth passed Sadler just before the final caution and was declared the winner when NASCAR called the race 20 minutes later.

“I was literally 15 or 16 seconds away from becoming Daytona 500 champion,” Sadler said. “That’s pretty hard to swallow. I still think about it a lot, ‘What if? What if I would have done this different? What if I would have done that different? What if the rain had come a little earlier?’ That was tough to swallow.”

With Allmendinger (third) and Sorenson (ninth) also in the top 10 at Daytona, it was the best showing in years for Petty’s team. It also was a soothing start following a tumultuous offseason, during which Sadler threatened a lawsuit to stop Gillett Evernham Motorsports from dumping him in favor of Allmendinger.

GEM, which later merged with Petty, worked out a deal to keep both. Sadler said time and Tom Reddin’s resignation in May as Petty CEO have eased the tension.

“A lot of stuff we went through this winter, just being on different pages of where we thought our future should be, really went out the door when Tom was let go,” Sadler said.

Foster Gillett, a managing partner in RPM, has taken on a greater role in day-to-day operations.

“When you start with leadership that has a positive outlook on things and is a good motivator, that just trickles down through the whole team,” Sadler said. “He has brought this team a long way from where it was a month and a half ago. We’re seeing that in the way all four cars are running. It starts with him.”

It could get better, too.

RPM has lagged behind in development of the new R6P8 engine that Penske Racing, the other Dodge organization, has used all season.

Even though some believe it wouldn’t make sense to spend more money developing the new engine considering a potential split between RPM and Dodge, Sadler said he has received assurances that the motor will power his No. 19 car next month.

And that’s another reason he’s hopeful of a turnaround.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “You have to build on this stuff and put it all in motion. We’re going to get better as the year goes. We’re better in July than we were in June and we’re going to be better in August than July and we should be back close to where we need to be around September. Hopefully, that’s the path we’re taking.”


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