Like a quarterback studying film of the opposing team's defense, or a hitter watching tape of a starting pitcher, Elliott Sadler believes in the power of preparation.

The veteran NASCAR XFINITY Series driver wants - no, needs - to be at his best at this stage of the season.

Like last year, the 300 on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway starts the opening round of the series' playoffs. Qualifying is scheduled at 5:35 p.m. and the race is slated to start at 8 p.m.

Sadler enters as the defending race winner in search of a NASCAR championship that has eluded him. Earlier this week, the 42-year-old watched a replay of his winning performance from a year ago, as well as his 12th place finish in July at Kentucky Speedway.

"Just gathering all the information that I can," Sadler said. "Who does what on restarts. Which line works. Who makes passes, and where they make passes at. What the car did in traffic. What the car didn't do in traffic.

"Without going into the nuts and bolts of it, there's just a lot you can learn as a driver, and it kind of refreshes your memory because we run on so many different styles of tracks."

The Emporia, Virginia native made his first XFINITY Series start in 1995. Since then, he's started more than 800 more across NASCAR's three national series.

A championship is what he's after now.

Sadler's come close a few times. He narrowly missed winning the series' championship last year when he finished two points behind Daniel Suarez after the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He was a championship runner-up twice before - in 2011 and 2012.

"It would mean a lot to me to win the whole thing," Sadler said. "My family and I feel like we've been chasing a championship in NASCAR for a long time. My family and I have been fans of this sport for a long, long time. We came really close last year and we've been really close."

Sadler is winless since last year's 300 but consistency through the first 26 races this season earned the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet the regular season championship.

He trails JR Motorsports teammates William Byron, a three-time winner this season, and Justin Allgaier in points but five points is all that separates them. Another teammate, Michael Annett, is the No. 12 seed in the 12-driver playoff field.

"Last year was a huge shot of adrenaline for us to come here and win at Kentucky," Sadler said. "Once you get some momentum on your side in the playoffs, it can carry you through a couple of races. It was fun doing that."

The playoffs are separated into three rounds. The first round is comprised of three races - Kentucky, Dover and Charlotte. Eight drivers advance to the next round and it is comprised of three more races - Kansas, Texas and Phoenix. Four drivers advance to the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finishing championship contender in that race wins the season title.

Saturday's race will be broken into three segments. The first segment is scheduled to end on Lap 45, the second segment is scheduled to end on Lap 90 and the third and final segment is scheduled to end on Lap 200.

A victory by any of the 12 championship-eligible drivers automatically sends them through to the Round of 8.

It might be the best opportunity for an XFINITY Series regular to win and advance because there are no Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers entered in the race. Whether that sense of urgency contributed to it, or not, last year's 300 produced a record number of cautions.

"It ended up being the most chaotic with the most carnage," said Ryan Reed, driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. "I would think everyone's going to learn from that. Then you get racecar drivers racing each other and I think it's going to be really easy to get aggressive. It is going to be easy to push that envelope and make a mistake."

Allgaier enters the playoffs coming off a victory last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway and looking to minimize risk in the playoff opener. He posted the second fastest lap in final practice in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

"For us, it's just about doing what we've been doing and trying to stay out of everybody else's trouble and not make any mistakes of our own and put ourselves in that position to come out of here with a good, solid points night and go on to next week," he said.

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has won two of the past three XFINITY Series races at Kentucky Speedway.

Matt Tifft is in the playoffs driving the No. 19 JGR Toyota. One year ago, he made his first XFINITY Series start after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Tifft is the No. 10 seed.

"It's crazy to think it's been a year already," said Tifft, who led Friday's opening practice and has a 9.7 average finish in three career XFINITY Series starts at Kentucky. "It's amazing what a difference a year makes. Now is kind of time to turn the page and make a new chapter. We want to make it as far into the playoffs as possible and make run for the championship. We'll see what happens, but I'm feeling great."

Kyle Benjamin is not in the playoffs but is driving JGR's No. 18 Toyota, which has won six times this season.

NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points leader Ryan Preece will be making his third start in the No. 20 Toyota and led final practice with a lap of 181.629 mph. He earned the opportunity on the strength of his first two starts - a runner-up finish in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and his first career series victory later that month at Iowa Speedway.

Preece respects that some are racing for a championship but is unwavering in his desire to further his career.

"I have respect for everybody I race," Preece said. "I wouldn't go wrecking somebody. But at the same time this is my career and this is my last race as far as I know. I'm going to do everything I can to win that race. That's for sure.

"I have the utmost respect for pretty much every driver I'm racing against. I would never do anything to jeopardize their chances. But at the same time I hope they respect the fact that I'm going to be racing hard. This is what my career is going to be living on."

The XFINITY Series is billed as a proving ground for drivers. From veterans to part-timers, Saturday's race offers an opportunity to achieve a goal or move closer to one.

Sadler is just as hungry as the up-and-comers.

"It would mean the world to me to be able to hand my mom and dad that championship trophy, if it comes to that," he said. "That's where we're at right now. I've had a really good career for a small town boy in southern Virginia. To be a NASCAR champion is definitely the ultimate goal. I'm going to keep working hard all the way through until we get to Homestead and see if we can make that happen."


NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs Drivers

Seed -- Driver

  1. William Byron (No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet)
  2. Justin Allgaier (No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet)
  3. Elliott Sadler (No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet) *
  4. Daniel Hemric (No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet)
  5. Brennan Poole (No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet)
  6. Ryan Reed (No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford)
  7. Jeremy Clements (No. 51 Jeremy Clements Racing Chevrolet)
  8. Cole Custer (No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford)
  9. Blake Koch (No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet)
  10. Matt Tifft (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)
  11. Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) *
  12. Michael Annett (No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet)

 * Past XFINITY Series race winner at Kentucky Speedway