Back in the saddle for just the second time this season, Bill Elliott's weekend at Chicagoland Speedway didn't go exactly as planned.
Still, his 35th-place finish in the USG Sheetrock 400 marked a new beginning. Not necessarily for Elliott, but for Michael Waltrip Racing.
The team has run Cup races in the past, but it was never more than a part-time deal. Waltrip's team would focus on the Busch Series, with only an occasional foray into Cup. And Waltrip thought that's how it would remain.
That, though, changed once Toyota made it clear it wasn't going to stop at fielding trucks in the Craftsman Truck Series. Seeing how Toyota's technical backing helped its teams, Waltrip started dreaming of a full-time Cup effort.
Announced in January as one of Toyota's teams next year, Waltrip elected to field cars in five Cup races this year to get a jump on smoothing out the rough edges that come with any start-up.
Elliott's the driver, amid speculation that he could run the full schedule next year for the first time since 2003. Whether that would be with Waltrip's operation or another team remains to be seen; Elliott won't divulge his plans just yet.
If he does come back, he can only hope for a smoother weekend than this past one.
"Saturday was an interesting day. We lost an engine right off the bat in practice," Elliott said. "We didn't get a lot of practice time at all. We went with one setup and then decided to go back to more of a conventional type of setup. We didn't know really where to start when the race started. We finally got the car pretty decent at the end of the day. We just need more time to figure it all out."
Elliott will get time at New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend. If all goes well in qualifying, he'll make his 749th Cup start, but probably won't be in the running for his 45th career win.
Winning would be asking a lot for a driver who last won three years ago, when he was still with Evernham Motorsports. He ran just six races the next year and nine last season. He may run just nine this year, and that's assuming he qualifies for his remaining events with Waltrip's team and the three he'll run for Team Red Bull, another start-up operation that will campaign Toyotas next year.
Elliott, though, is just focusing on New Hampshire.
"We are going to try to keep things moving in the right direction at Loudon. We just need more time," Elliott said. "I don't know how else to put it. We just need things to go smoothly so that we can get a better handle on things.
"The challenge is that everything happens so quick in this sport that you don't have time to massage things. We don't have notes to go back to the last time I ran there. It makes it difficult. Larry [Carter, the team's crew chief] is able to go back to what they ran there last time. I have a lot of confidence in Larry."
With all the thrashing to get its equipment ready, the team wasn't as prepared to test for the Brickyard 400 as the established teams. That's understandable, because Waltrip is building a new operation virtually from scratch.
And instead of just building for two Cup teams -- for himself and fellow veteran Dale Jarrett -- Waltrip will field three Cup teams in 2007 after securing the sponsors to make it happen. Waltrip, though, is trying to focus on driving, while letting others prepare for the future.
"We're building cars, we're building Toyotas that the final templates haven't even been approved for," Waltrip said. "We're building cars, we're building pit equipment. We're working as hard as we could no matter whether it was one, two or three [teams]."
Elliott said he's just a small part of the building process, pointing out that he's only driving the car this year because both Waltrip and Jarrett have obligations with their current teams.
Whether or not he'll be around in a larger role next year is the great unknown. Well, Elliott may know the answer, but he's not about to share it with anyone.
"It would have to depend on the options," he said. "As I said in the past, I left a great deal with the 9 car [of Evernham Motorsports] in 2003 when I was burned out from running all the races. As I said in 2003 and a thousand times afterwards, when I decided I didn't want to run all the races, my ultimate goal was to run 12-15 races. With Ray's organization, the opportunity kind of went away with him starting a third [full-time team].
"We were not in the position to continue on with a limited program. There were other options that came along, such as the opportunity with Michael Waltrip Racing this season, and I drove the MB2 car earlier this year at Daytona. Right now, I'm waiting to see what's out there. As I've said before, I want to give it a few more races and see what shakes out as time goes on. If it works out, I might consider it. If it doesn't, then it's not a big deal because I'll go do something else."
For now, though, Elliott will simply focus on having a smooth weekend at Loudon.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com