For Bill Elliott, all the pieces are finally falling into place. With back to back poles and a victory last week in Pocono, Elliott and his Evernham Racing owned Dodge is a force to be reckoned with. Heading into Indy, Elliott is once again a favorite to win, but that was not always the case.
Three years ago, Bill Elliott might have been close to calling it a career. It was his sixth year as a driver-owner, Elliott had finished the season 21st in points, in grip of a 193-race winless streak, and was now without a sponsor.
After a successful 10-year, championship-winning tenure with Melling Racing, and another three seasons driver for Junior Johnson, Elliott gave it a go on his own, becoming a driver-owner in 1995. He didn’t enjoy as much success during those six years on his own, managing 12-top fives, 32 top-10’s and no victories, facing the prospect of having to go sponsor hunting for the 2001 season left Elliott with few options.
“From my standpoint, I was probably staring retirement right in the face.” Elliott said, “I wasn't having any luck getting sponsorship for my own deal. Owner/drivers in the sponsorship world were not a viable deal. Now, here I was. I had had several lean years. You look at the people and who was going to look at you to come drive a race car. You could have probably found a lot of undesirable deals.”
Enter Ray Evernham. After several seasons as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, Evernham also ventured out on his own as an owner – charged with the task of spearheading Dodge’s return to Winston Cup in 2001.
Then 44 years old, Elliott could easily be called one of the elder statesmen in Winston Cup. With 623 starts, 40 wins and 49 poles, the 1988 Winston Cup champion brought a lifetime of experience to the table, something that appealed to greatly to Evernham. The two teamed up to form the nucleus of the 10-car Dodge stable.
“When Ray came along I about fell over.” Elliott said, “I didn't know why he wanted me or if he had gone totally crazy. Ray has done a lot for me. He's really supported me, and I think that's done more for me than anything in the world.”
Some may have thought Evernham was crazy when he put Elliott, considered by some in the twilight of his career, in the driver’s seat of the #9 Dodge. But for Evernham, it was a perfect match.
“He was a perfect guy for me at that time, and I was the perfect guy for him.” Evernham said, “He had a race team that didn't have a sponsor, and I had a sponsor that was trying to build a race team and we were trying to hire an experienced driver.”
“It was the perfect situation, and I knew as soon as we put him in equipment and he got to feeling healthy again, he could start winning races. Now we're giving him cars that can get the job done. He's healthy and he's confident and right now, today, Bill Elliott is as good as anybody on the race track.”
Elliott proved him right with a victory at Homestead last season, ending a 227 race winless drought and giving Evernham his first win as an owner. This season, Elliott has had three top-fives, six top-tens and four poles. He notched his 42nd victory last weekend at Pocono – his fifth at the track.
Despite all the talk this season about the “young guns”, Elliott is holding his own against the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. He comes into this Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ninth in the points standings behind point’s leader and fellow series veteran Sterling Marlin.
In eight starts in the Brickyard 400, Elliott has three top-fives and six top-10 finishes. His best finish has been a pair of third-place showings, in 1994 and 2000. He finished eighth in last seasons race.
“Indy is a big race.” Elliott said, “Sure, I’d love to win it but you don’t go into it thinking about that. Indy is one of the big races but I’d love to win every race. You can’t really put an emphasis on winning one race.”
“I'd like to have Indy on my resume, but it's not the end of the world if it doesn't happen.”
Even with Elliott’s career on an upswing, he’s still dogged with questions about his plans for the future.
"I think I'm going to take that a step at a time.” Elliott said, “I've really made no concrete decisions about the point I want to go to. Basically, I've got another year on my contract with another two-year option after that. Depending on how I feel next year, will depend on what I do from there on.”
“I'm on the shorter end of the stick than the longer end; I'll put it that way. The evolution clock is ticking along, and you're not going to do it forever. Nobody does anything forever. You live, you die and what you do in the middle you make the best of it. I want to make the best of this. I want to focus on the racing and give Ray everything I can.”
As far as Evernham is concerned, the #9 ride belongs to Elliott for as long as he wants it.
“Bill and I don't talk a lot about retirement. Bill Elliott can drive that car for me as long as he wants to.”
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