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Sunday, November 11
Elliott finally finds Victory Lane
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

Bill Elliott
Elliott
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Seven years, two months, seven days and 226 races of the same old thing ... and now a new beginning.

That's the amount of time, frustration and absence from Victory Lane that Bill Elliott has had to endure, a streak that he finally was able to snap with Sunday's inspiring come-from-behind victory in the Pennzoil Freedom 400.

"I was beginning to think Ray (team owner Ray Evernham) didn't make a very good decision," Elliott jokingly quipped about being hired to drive for Evernham this season.

But the pride of Dawsonville, Ga., whose last previous win came Sept. 4, 1994 at Darlington (S.C.) -- his last season of driving for the legendary Junior Johnson -- quickly drew a bit more serious when he admitted he had wondered if he'd ever taste victory champagne again.

"I was talking to Rusty (Wallace) not too long ago, and you get to the point where you think you can never win another race," said Elliott, who turned 46 four weeks ago. "Rusty said you just have to keep believing in yourself.

"All in all, to come to this event, sit on the pole (the third driver this season to win from the pole) and win the race is just fantastic. When it's your day, it's your day."

And that's what happened Sunday, as Elliott not only earned the 41st victory of his fabled Winston Cup career, he also delivered the first win to Ray Evernham as a team owner and first triumph to Mike Ford as a crew chief in Cup competition.

"Mike Ford was in high school when I won my (Winston Cup) championship in 1988," Elliott laughed.

While Elliott started from the pole and led 54 of the first 59 laps, he started backsliding from that point, falling as far back as 14th after 180 laps of the 267-lap jaunt around the 1.5-mile oval layout of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Even with less than 50 laps left, Elliott was still mired in 11th place. But being able to take advantage of a couple of caution periods allowed him to wind his way back through the pack, eventually catching and passing rookie teammate Casey Atwood for the lead with five laps to go.

As his car briefly lost traction coming out of a turn, it was enough of a bobble that Atwood could only watch helplessly as Elliott sailed past en route to the victory.

"I thought we had it," Atwood said. "But I just got way too loose and couldn't hold him off. Bill just had the car to win at the end. I'd rather let him win and me finish third than to take both of us out.

"I'm real happy for Bill. It's been a long time. He deserves it. He's been wanting this for a long time."

The prospect of a potential 1-2 Elliott-Atwood or Atwood-Elliott finish admittedly gave Evernham some nervous moments.

"I felt like I had two kids out there playing a baseball game and I didn't know who to cheer for," Evernham said. "I was just hoping they wouldn't wreck."

As it turned out, Elliott won, Atwood dropped to an eventual third-place finish, and Michael Waltrip sandwiched himself in between the two to end up second, finishing 1.42 seconds behind Elliott.

"A reporter told me earlier this year that Bill Elliott was too old to win and Casey Atwood was too young to win," Evernham said. "To bring Bill back to Victory Lane and give Mike Ford his first win (as a crew chief) was a great feeling."

But Elliott admits he had his doubts if he'd ever take the checkered flag again. In fact, he chuckled that his post-race celebratory burnout was the first time he had performed that stunt in his career, primarily because it's only in the last couple of years that it has become a Winston Cup winner's staple

"The older you get, the harder it is to win," Elliott said. "These young guys come in and do things a different way. But, I feel you have to be able to change. That's what's been hardest for me the last couple of years, being able to try to change in the way we drive these race cars and learn how to drive them differently.

"I think that's the key to being successful throughout your career. A lot of guys can't change. They say this is the way it's gotta be and that's it. I went through a period in '98 and probably part of '99 with that same mentality, that it was either this way or it wasn't going to work.

"Now, it's like 'you guys set it up and I'll try to give you feedback on what the car is doing and we'll go from there.' "

Sunday's runner-up finish marked the third race in the state of Florida this season that Waltrip has finished first or second (won the season-opening Daytona 500 and was runner-up in July's Pepsi 500.

"I'm proud for Bill (Elliott)," Waltrip said. "I grew up watching Bill race. Just to run second to him, that's pretty cool."

Elliott and Atwood's finishes were part of a Dodge-powered onslaught Sunday, with five Intrepids finishing in the top-10 (Sterling Marlin was fifth, Dave Blaney was sixth and rookie Jason Leffler was 10th).

Points leader Jeff Gordon failed in his bid to clinch the Winston Cup championship. A loose car and a pit road fender bender forced Gordon to a disappointing 28th place finish, his second consecutive poor outing (was 25th last week at Rockingham).

Ricky Rudd, who finished 21st on Sunday, is 305 points behind Gordon with two races remaining on the schedule. Gordon will likely clinch the title for sure next Sunday at Atlanta.

Ironically, it was Evernham who, as crew chief, led Gordon to his first three Winston Cup championships.

Elliott says he intends to honor the two remaining years he has on his contract with Evernham. That means he'll have close to 80 more opportunities to add a few more wins before he even considers retiring from racing.

When asked how Sunday's win will invigorate him in the long run, Elliott jokingly quipped, "Call me in a couple days and I'll tell you."

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.

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