Awesome Bill decides on reduced 2004 schedule
by Pete McCole

December 6, 2003

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#9 and Bill Elliott are synonymous

Ending months of rampant speculation about his future driving career, Bill Elliott announced this week he’s stepping out as a full-time driver in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, instead opting for a part-time ride in 2004.

Elliott plans to vacate the # 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Intrepid he’s driven for Evernham Motorsports since the team’s inception in 2001 to run a limited schedule for Evernham, turning over driving duties to NASCAR Busch Series rookie driver Kasey Kahne. Elliott will also take part in several celebrations at select events next season to thank his fans for their support.

The announcement was part of a news conference held by Evernham Motorsports in New York City as NASCAR geared up for its annual awards banquet.

Elliott said family obligations played a part in his decision to cut back on racing, as well as the chance for him to get closer to his fans.

“This decision involved a number of people and was something I took very seriously,” said Elliott. “I said before that there were several people and several other important factors that I was going to consider before I made my decision. One of the most important was my family. My son Chase is becoming involved in racing and I want to be able to devote more time to these types of family activities. Based on that and all that’s gone on over the course of the last several months, I feel the best option - for my family, my fans, NASCAR and Ray’s organization - is to run a limited schedule. My new role at Evernham Motorsports will still allow me to give back to a sport and to the fans that have given me so much over the years.”

Team owner Ray Evernham also announced that in addition to running for the Rookie of the Year title in the Nextel Cup Series next season, Kahne will also run the full Busch Series schedule in 2004 with their eye on the 2004 Busch Series crown.

Evernham will also supply motors for Kahne’s #38 Great Clips Busch Series team, which will switch from Ford to Dodge for 2004.

“It’s an honor to succeed such a well-liked and successful champion as Bill Elliott,” said Kahne. “I couldn’t think of a better way to grow as a driver than working with a leader as great as Ray Evernham. I hope to continue the success that Ray, Bill and Jeremy have begun at Evernham Motorsports. Bill is called ‘Awesome’ for a reason, and knowing that I have him to go to for help and support will only make me a better driver.”

The future of Elliott and Kahne has been one of the hottest topics of the off-season. It had been widely rumored that Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup Champion, would retire following the 2003 season, but a strong performance late in the year coupled with his victory in the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham quickly quieted those rumors.

Elliott says retirement is on the horizon, just not right now.

"I think that's going to be several years down the road, eventually yes.” Elliott said. “The way I look at it, I might get in a Busch car next year. I might run a truck some next year. I'm going to run the dirt car some next year. I'm going to run these Cup cars some next year. I'm going to do quite a bit of R&D work for Ray, developing the new chassis for him. I don't foresee myself slowing down a lot other than not just having the hectic schedule of running week in and week out as far as the Cup schedule is concerned.”

"We had a lot of fun the last third of the season. If we could have kept everything the same it would have probably been OK to run another full season, but realistically, I'm at a point in my life, I'm getting close to 50, and I need to slow down.”

Elliott plans to run 10-15 races driving a third Evernham Motorsports Dodge, and will stay on as a coach and mentor to Kahne. Details of Elliott’s role as a driver for Evernham next season are still being ironed out, and the team is currently pursuing sponsorship opportunities for Elliott. Plans in place right now call for Elliott to drive the #9 car in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona on Feb. 7 but he will not drive in the Daytona 500. Elliott’s first points race of 2004 will be at Las Vegas on March 7 driving a third Evernham Motorsports entry.

The announcement also put an end to questions regarding Kahne’s plans for 2004. Kahne, a graduate of the open-wheel sprint car ranks, has become one of the most coveted drivers this past year. Originally under contract with Ford, Kahne was rumored to be headed to Robert Yates Racing to pilot a third entry for the team.

Kahne finished seventh in the final Busch Series points standings with four top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes, including a win in the final race of the season at Homestead.

Evernham said he’s had his eye on Kahne since the early days of Kahne’s career.

"I'm a big open wheel fan, and I've known of Kasey's career for three or four years driving the sprints and midgets at a young age,” Evernham said. “His success there in USAC was very much along the same lines as Gordon, Stewart and Newman if you look at his record. He's a very committed young man. He's very mature for his age. He's very committed to being a champion racecar driver. I believe more so than the talent he's got the commitment. In this sport, if you're going to make big gains you've got to make a big commitment, and at 23 years old, I believe he's ready to do that. He's a good kid. He knows an awful lot about a racecar."

Kahne and Evernham did not go into details regarding Kahne’s defection to Dodge, saying only that Kahne had “completed all his obligations” to Ford.

"From the legal side, his attorneys, and things I know, say there is no contract,” Evernham said. “The contract was terminated. Kasey honored all his agreements with Ford.”

Tommy Baldwin will join Evernham Motorsports as team director for the #9 team. As previously announced, Jeremy Mayfield remains in the No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge for Evernham Motorsports in 2004, with Kenny Francis returning as team director.

“I’m fortunate that things have fallen into place like they have,” said Evernham. “Bill and I worked closely to make sure we were taking this company in the right direction, but I also wanted to make sure that he had the space to really make the right decision for himself. In making that decision, I think we as an organization have made some strong personnel moves.

“Kasey Kahne is a bright, young star in this sport, and he will accomplish a lot with guidance from one of the best in the business. Tommy Baldwin is an asset, and I feel very lucky to have him on board. And, we have a solid base with Jeremy Mayfield and Kenny Francis returning as well. With these moves, we are on track with the vision I have for this company, and these additions only make us stronger as we move into 2004.” 

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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