|ESPN Network: ESPN.com | RPM | NBA.com | NHL.com | ESPNdeportes | ABCSports | FANTASY|
Wednesday, December 3
Elliott too shy to go out loudly
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com
It was back in 1993, following the so-called "tire test" at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that in reality was the precursor to the first Brickyard 400 that would be held at the famed oval the following year.
As he stood at the back of his team's transporter, Bill Elliott was in a hurry to get out of his firesuit and head home. He wasn't in the mood to talk all that much, even though it was just him and one reporter.
But one particular question stopped Elliott cold in his tracks. "What's the one thing that most people don't know about you?"
Elliott's response came in his slow, Georgian drawl. "Well, I guess, I'm really kinda the shy type. Not too many people know that about me."
Bill Elliott, shy? The same Bill Elliott who has been voted the most popular Winston Cup driver a record 16 times? The same Bill Elliott who took himself out of contention for this year's most popular driver contest because he was tired of monopolizing the award -- which will go to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 2003?
Well, maybe so.
The news came Wednesday morning that Elliott will announce his retirement as a full-time Cup driver on Thursday, when he is expected to reveal that he will race only a part-time, five-to-10 race schedule in 2004. He will yield his seat in the No. 9 Ray Evernham-owned Dodge to rookie Kasey Kahne.
Now that the time has come to gradually wean himself from the high-pressure, high-dollar world of stock-car racing, Elliott is doing so on his terms, the way it should be.
And yes, in a sense, he's probably doing it because of that same shyness he revealed that sunny day at Indy 10 years ago.
He doesn't want the end of his full-time racing career to be a spectacle. He doesn't want any season-long "farewell tour," where plaudits and gifts would probably be too embarrassing for him to take. He doesn't want anyone to go to any trouble on his behalf. He doesn't want any undue attention, just to slowly and gradually end his career with as little fanfare as possible.
At the age of 48 and the winner of 44 career Winston Cup races and the 1988 series championship, Elliott is in an enviable position. He probably won't ever have to work again in his life.
But being idle is not part of the Elliott family makeup. Like his brothers and father, Bill is usually the happiest when he has something to hold his interest and keep him busy.
What's likely in the future for the "shy" Elliott once he finally ends all driving tasks, be it at the end of 2004 or 2005? With his knowledge and experience, he'd make an excellent broadcast analyst. Or, if NASCAR President Brian France was smart, he'd snatch Elliott up and make him a corporate executive, perhaps a liaison of sorts between the sanctioning body and drivers.
One thing Elliott probably won't do is return to the world of team ownership. When he left Junior Johnson's team and then formed his own race team in 1995, Elliott struggled miserably for most of the six years he wore the dual hats of owner and driver. Sure, he finished eighth in 1995 and 1997, but he'd just as soon forget the seasons when he finished 18th, 21st (twice) and the injury-shortened 30th-place showing in 1996.
Flipping through the Winston Cup media guide reveals that Elliott is the only driver whose biography and career racing record takes up a full four pages in the annual bible of stock-car racing. Other veteran luminaries such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd warrant just three pages.
And Elliott warrants four full pages because of all his accomplishments, from his single championship to three runner-up season finishes and to 14 overall top-10 season finishes in 21 seasons. This season, his inspiring rally to finish ninth gave him his first top-10 finish since 1997.
For fans and reporters who have appreciated Elliott for the gentleman he has been throughout his career, consolation can be found in the fact that Elliott isn't quitting cold turkey.
Rather, as he eases into retirement, we'll still have some opportunities to wonder and marvel at the incredible talent Elliott has shown over the years, and which he'll undoubtedly show in 2004 on a part-time basis.
After winning the second-to-last race at Rockingham (N.C.) and almost winning the season finale at Homestead (Fla.) last month before a cut tire cost him the victory on the final lap, many fans were anticipating Elliott having a big year in '04.
There's no doubt that whenever the freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Georgia does leave for good, NASCAR will miss him.
We'll miss seeing Awesome Bill from Dawsonville at every race in 2004, but at least he'll be at some select events.
That's better than not seeing him ever again.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.