FONTANA, Calif. Elliott Sadler raced to his second victory of the season and all but wrapped up a spot in NASCAR's new championship playoff Sunday night at California Speedway.
Sadler won for the third time in his Nextel Cup career, easily holding off rookie Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin at the end of the 250-lap Pop Secret 500 with the help of a couple of late caution flags that slowed the two challengers.
But Kahne, who finished second for the fifth time this season, and Martin both climbed into the top 10 in the points with only next Saturday night's race at Richmond Va., remaining before NASCAR pares the championship battle to the top 10 drivers for the last 10 races of the season. Kahne now is ninth and Martin 10th, nine points behind. Jamie McMurray finished fourth in the race and moved into 11th, 25 points behind Martin.
All Sadler has to do is start the race at Richmond to secure his place in NASCAR's new Chase for the Nextel Cup.
"The cautions were definitely helping me, but my car was unbelievable the last 10 laps," said Sadler, whose last win came early in the season at Texas. "After we got the checkered (flag), I told (team owner) Robert Yates, 'This is a dream come true. This is the reason I came to Robert Yates Racing.'"
Martin appeared to have the strongest car through much of the race. But he couldn't seem to get his car up to top speed for 10 to 20 laps after each of the 11 caution flags in the race that began in 99-degree heat of the late afternoon and ended in the cooler temperatures after dark under California Speedway's new lights.
"We had a fast race car on the long greens, but I can't help that the cautions came out and my car just didn't shine on a 10-lap run," Martin said.
Both Bobby Labonte, who finished 21st, and Kevin Harvick, who was 29th, fell out of the top 10, but still have a shot at getting into the Chase at Richmond. Harvick fell to 15th, 56 points out of 10th.
Martin, who led a race-high 65 laps, took the lead from Kahne on lap 217, but a spin by Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought out a caution flag on the next trip around the two-mile oval and brought the leaders to pit road.
Rookie Brian Vickers took only two tires and grabbed the lead, with Martin, Sadler and Kahne right behind. On the restart on lap 230, Sadler drove high on the banking and raced to the lead. He stayed there the rest of the way, holding off Kahne and Martin on one last restart with 10 laps to go after a crash involving Earnhardt and Ken Schrader. The winner led a total of 59 laps in the race.
Sadler said that crew chief Todd Parrott decided on a tire pressure change on his last pit stop, which didn't sit well with the driver at first.
"I didn't agree with it. I told him, 'I don't think we should do that,' and he did it," Sadler said. "That's the reason he's the winningest active crew chief in the garage."