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Thursday, November 13
Elliott won at Rockingham on Sunday
By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com
Bill Elliott was on a roll and certain that his luck wasn't yet ready to run out. He was riding the momentum from five top-10s in six races and determined to keep the streak alive at North Carolina Speedway.
So when the motor in his No. 9 Dodge Intrepid blew no more than 10 minutes into practice before qualifying on Friday, you might have expected a devastated look on Elliott's face. Instead, he was as calm as the Rockingham breeze because he knew something the rest of us didn't -- when they really wanted to be, his newly crowned World Pit Crew Champions were just as good at turning around a quick repair on a busted rig as they were at tearing off a fast pit stop.
From the crew's perspective, they knew an aging man was counting on them to close the season strong. They knew it meant a lot to Elliott, and that made it mean a lot to them.
So they ripped the engine out, changed the oil tank and oil lines and got a new motor in there all in enough time for Elliott to make his qualifying lap. The 9 car took off and rocketed to the fourth-best time-trial speed of the day.
It was clear at that point that the team had fostered a bond that could carry it past any set-back, like losing another motor and having to start Sunday's race at the back of the field. It was clear at that point that the team was dedicated to one another and determined to surmount all obstacles, as it did when it danced to the front of the pack on Sunday and won the race.
"I'm so proud of the guys and how hard they worked to get us back out there," Elliott said. "It seems like things have really come together for us and we've got everything going in the right direction."
The hard work, the guys say, was all for Elliott. The faith he has placed in his team, and the patience he has shown it as it has grown, has inspired a loyalty that manifests itself in the fierce drive to perform.
"Bill's kind of a private person," team owner Ray Evernham said. "But, once you get to know him, you realize that he's just a good guy. He's a good guy to be friends with. He's a lot of fun. He's got really a good sense of humor, and he's very good to people behind the scenes. Bill Elliott does a lot of charity work, and he does a lot of things in his local town, and he helps a lot of friends of his that he never talks about. You'd never know those things unless you were close to him. I knew Bill Elliott was a great driver -- that's why I hired him. But, honestly, I didn't understand how good he really was until I got to work closely with him."
Evernham says that had as much as anything else to do with the victory Sunday. Through his knowledge and motivation, Elliott has helped carry Evernham's upstart project from 2001 to the point of believing it can compete for the Winston Cup title in 2004.
Of course, that hinges on something rather important. At 48, retirement is certainly toward the forefront of Elliott's mind. And it's been in the rumor mill, too.
"It's been an issue for everyone, there's no doubt about that," Elliott's crew chief Mike Ford said. "Everyone is concerned with what's going on. What we've done is we've learned a lot this year. What we've tried to do is to preach continually, 'Let's race like there's no tomorrow.' That's what we've done. We'll take it one day at a time and make the most of that day. We're still competitors. We don't want to lay down. We can all wonder about the future and wonder what's going to happen, but the fact is that we've still got to race today. We have to set ourselves up for tomorrow. We've got a team full of competitors. They want to win and they want to win, now. I think that's the biggest reason we've been able to be successful as of late with all of the rumors flying."
Evernham said he and Elliott would sit down and discuss the future after this weekend's race at Homestead Speedway -- site of Evernham Motorsports' first Winston Cup victory when Elliott won there in 2001. Evernham would love to see another victory on Sunday, but he'll be satisfied with a top-25. That's about where the ninth-place Elliott needs to finish this weekend to secure a top-10 finish in the points standings and the opportunity to go on stage at the awards banquet in New York.
"I try not to comment on any of those things," Evernham said of the retirement talk. "Bill and I have talked about a lot of things, and we've got a lot of options. We've both just agreed that for right now one of the things that was really important and was a major goal for this team was to put Bill Elliott up on the stage in New York once before he retired. That's all we're focusing on this week. I guess he and I are going to sit down after Homestead and talk about what our final plans are going to be."
"Right now we need to focus on one race at a time," Elliott said. "We'll worry about next year next year. I think collectively Ray and I have got some decisions to make, but all-in-all I'm so proud of this race team, and I don't want to take anything away from this race team. We've still got another race left. Once Homestead is over with we'll worry about next year and what we all end up collectively doing. All-in-all I'm very proud of the guys and very proud to be part of it. They've done an awesome job for me."
Elliott spoke from a press box overlooking the racetrack at Rockingham, the track where Elliott made his first start. By winning, he goes into the books as the last winner of the track's Fall race because the date has been moved to accommodate NASCAR's continued effort to reach fans in new markets. But he didn't need a distinction like the significance of the site or race date to make the victory special.
"I think (the victories) get better each and every year," he said. "You learn more to appreciate them better because they come less often. Sometimes back when you're going through it you don't realize how hard it is to win these things anymore. I'm just so proud of the team and the efforts that they've given, and how well we've come together in the last few races."
The team is certain it has solidified itself while falling in line with Elliott. It has drawn from his experience and learned. That's why Ford believes the victories will keep coming, with or without Elliott in the driver's seat.
"We're behind Bill whatever he decides to do," he said. "There are a lot of competitive people here. No matter what happens we're going to fight for wins. Bill does bring a lot of experience to the table, and I feel like we've all learned from him. If he decides to move on, we'll miss him. But you do have to race each day and continue to move forward. If it is a younger driver, then we'll make the most of that situation. We do have a group together now that does have a lot of experience, and maybe that role can be reversed and they can learn from what we've got."
Either way, as a NASCAR racer or not, Evernham said Elliott has done too much for the team to get away. Whatever happens to Awesome Bill from Dawsonville after Homestead, Evernham hopes one thing won't change: He hopes Elliott will be a member of the Evernham Motorsports team for a long time.
"If Bill does decide not to drive full-time next year, it's not like we're never going to speak again," he said. "Bill Elliott is going to remain a friend of mine no matter what he decides. When I hired Bill I knew he was on the later end of his career. We talked about that. We knew that some day he was going to have to make a decision, whether it's this year, next year or two years from now. We've also laid out a plan for Bill to be involved with me, helping me run the business, helping me train these new drivers and helping me keep these race teams going.
"I think Bill Elliott, as a friend and an asset, as long as I'm in business will probably be involved with me in some way, shape or form."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories