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Thursday, December 4
Plans still sketchy for 'retired' Elliott
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com
Bill Elliott can step back, but he just doesn't have the heart to fully step out of Nextel Cup racing.
At least not yet.
That pretty much explains how the veteran NASCAR driver announced his unique semi-retirement Thursday morning. The 1988 Winston Cup champion will still take to the race track in 2004, albeit scaling back his racing schedule from a full 36-race tilt to between 12 and 15 events. He will also serve as defacto driving coach for new rookie teammate Kasey Kahne.
"The way I look at it, there's got to be a time when you've got to step back," Elliott said. "Let's say for example you started the season and got hurt and couldn't run anymore. You've seen that so much in the past. We don't live forever. We don't drive forever. We don't do a lot of things forever. It would be nice to do it, but I feel like this is an opportunity for the fans where I can still run some events.
"To me, it's an era where I won't be there every week, but I'm still going to have a presence. I'll still run some, and I think it's a good opportunity."
Added team owner Ray Evernham: "It probably happened a year or two before we wanted it to happen, but it was eventually going to happen. I think this is another one of those strong blocks in a foundation that will make us better in the future."
But while we'll see less of Elliott in a Nextel Cup car, we'll likely see more of him in other enterprises.
"The way I look at it," Elliott said, "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. This might give me an opportunity to be somewhere where that fan would not (normally) get to see me.
"I'm going to do quite a bit of R&D work for (Evernham), developing the new chassis for him," he said. "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."
That sure doesn't sound much like a guy who is going into partial retirement, does it? But at the same time, Elliott is the type of person who likes to keep busy. While he won't have to endure all the rigors that go along with Nextel Cup racing, he'll have more than enough to keep him occupied.
"We had a lot of fun the last third of the (2003) season," Elliott said. "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. I need to be able to start doing some of the things my family and Bill Elliott needs to do. This is a perfect place that I help Ray Evernham and help the new generation drivers, help look for drivers, help Ray develop his new R&D and develop his new cars, for me to take care of the fans and have some fan events over the next several years, some different kind of deals. For me, it's a great deal. I don't know that I could totally walk away, but for me this kind of leads toward a new era of what goes on in this sport. I've been in it since the mid '70s, and I've seen a lot of things happen over the last 30 years."
Elliott's segue to a part-time driver remains a work in progress, with several parts of his game plan for the season not completely worked out yet.
First, some confusion remains on what number cars Elliott and Kahne will drive in Cup competition. Elliott said he'll continue to drive the No. 9 Dodge in events he enters, but Evernham announced Thursday that Kahne will drive the No. 9 Dodge. Since Kahne will race the full 36-event schedule, it's likely he'll either drive cars with two different numbers (he'll drive in an alternate number car in events that Elliott races in). Potentially, Elliott might have to take a different number.
A third option is keeping Elliott in the No. 9 and giving Kahne a similar number like 09 or 90 or 91.
The only non-confusing element is that Jeremy Mayfield will remain in the No. 19 Dodge.
Adding to the confusion was Elliott's take on the whole matter.
Early in Thursday's teleconference, he remarked that "Kasey Kahne will be the driver of the 9 car."
Moments later, Elliott said, "Right now when I run I'll run the 9; Kasey will run the 9 when I'm not racing.
"We've got a plan, but we're still trying to put it all together."
For his part in all this, Evernham said: "Since it's not a retirement tour (for Bill Elliott), we haven't worked out all the car number stuff yet. We're still looking for partners to come on board with us, so they would certainly have some input on the number. Bill is going to run 10-15 races. On the day Bill Elliott decides it's going to be his last race, he will drive the No. 9."
Then there's the uncertainty of the tentative schedule Elliott will undertake. He initially plans on racing in the Bud Shootout during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, but he will likely skip the season-opening Daytona 500 and the second race of the season at Rockingham (N.C.), and make his first start of the year in the third race at Las Vegas.
He also foresees running at places like Michigan, California, Pocono and Indianapolis.
But then again, he might not skip Daytona, either.
"I don't want to take (the team's) focus away from the 500," Elliott said. "I might not run it this year and I might run it next year, I'm talking about 2005. The way everything fell together, we didn't get everything in place like we wanted to. We've got a good outline, but yet the main key that I don't want to do, I don't want to take Ray's focus off the 500 with Kasey and Jeremy."
Another possibility is putting Elliott into another team's car for a one-off shot at Daytona, similar to the season-long partnership between Evernham Motorsports and Jim Smith's operation with driver Jimmy Spencer in the No. 7 Dodge this past season.
"I would like to go in and run the Bud Shootout because I'm qualified for it and Kasey's not," Elliott said. "Maybe I can help them get a jump start on the 500. Who knows? If things work out, we might end up running it or not. Right now, we don't know."
Despite all the confusion and uncertainty that seems to remain, one heartening bit of good news came out of the teleconference: the fact that 2004 will not be Elliott's final season in a stock car. He'll likely keep his part-time agenda at least through the 2005 campaign, and possibly even longer.
When asked if this coming season was the first step toward permanently ending his racing career, Elliott remarked, "I think that's going to be several years down the road. Eventually, yes."
Part of the writing on the wall that preceded Thursday's announcement came nearly two weeks ago when Elliott's former crew chief, Mike Ford, left the team to assume the same role for Dale Jarrett's No. 88 at Robert Yates Racing, where Ford worked previously before joining Evernham and Elliott three years ago.
That further confirmed that Thursday's announcement was not a spur of the moment thing, with the original genesis occurring this past summer.
"Actually it was a conversation that took place at Michigan," Evernham recalled. "Bill just said, 'I just don't know that I can do this on a full-time basis anymore and we need to start thinking about some options.' All along he told me he'd never leave me high and dry. We had to talk about a lot of different scenarios. We both said if it's going to happen later anyway, let's just go ahead and make it happen sooner and get a head start on it. I wanted to respect his wishes whatever they were. I would love to have Bill Elliott driving for me forever, but he's going to remain with me driving on a part-time basis and we're going to be doing some things together. Really, it's the best of all worlds to move our team forward."
Kahne is excited to follow in Elliott's footsteps but is also cognizant of all the attention he'll receive by trying to replace a living legend.
"There's a lot of pressure really," Kahne said. "To think about what Bill has done as a driver, it's a huge step. I'm just going to do the best job I can in that car, but it's definitely going to be a ton of pressure."
In addition to running the full 36-race Nextel Cup schedule, Kahne also plans on competing in most, if not all, Busch Series events, as well, in 2004.
"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 (Jeff) Gordon, (Tony) Stewart and (Ryan) 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 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 race car. We all agree that Kasey could be one of the next big stars of the sport."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com
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