'Awesome Bill' eyes decision on goodbye
Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 11:43 p.m.
DAYTONA BEACH - Bill Elliott wants to leave NASCAR on his terms. Whether he will is pretty much out of his hands.
Partly by choice, partly by necessity, one of the most popular stock car drivers will race an abbreviated schedule in 2004 before he decides whether to say "Goodbye" for good.
How many races? The business side of the sport will dictate that.
"I kind of have mixed emotions," Elliott said Tuesday during a testing session at Daytona International Speedway, 33 days before the season opens with the Daytona 500. "One side says, 'Yeah, it'd be nice to run another full season.' Another side says, 'Hey, stupid, why you wanna do that?' So, I just don't know."
Thus far, Elliott and owner Ray Evernham have secured sponsorship for only three events on the 36-race calendar. Elliott's goal is to race in 10 to 15 events.
The Daytona 500 on Feb. 15 is not on Elliott's schedule. He is here, though, to practice for the Budweiser Shootout, the Feb. 7 exhibition for pole winners from the previous season. Elliott is also around, as he will be all year, to help Evernham with testing and know-how for the two full-time cars the owner will field this year, including Elliott's old No. 9, which will now be driven by Kasey Kahne.
"It's hard to totally walk away," Elliott said.
By most objective accounts, the 48-year-old driver is slowly being eased out of a sport that is increasingly for younger men.
"It's going to happen to everyone at some point in time," Bobby Labonte said.
But in the garage and in the stands, it's clear that almost everyone wants to see a happy ending for Elliott.
Known for his southern twang and simple style, "Awesome Bill From Dawsonville" oozes a brand of southern charm that once made this sport what it is but has slowly - some say sadly - seeped out as a more businesslike atmosphere has taken over.
He earned his nickname in 1985 when he won 11 races and 11 pole positions. He won the 1988 Winston Cup championship and 44 races over a 27-year career, including one at Rockingham late last year. But the titles that say the most about Elliott were the 16 times he was voted NASCAR's most popular driver, a record that probably will never be broken.
As 2003 wore on, it appeared fans would be getting their last glimpses of Awesome Bill on the track. But a strong finish - he almost won the season finale at Homestead and wound up ninth in the points standings - changed those plans. Elliott decided he wanted to come back part time, and Evernham committed to trying to make it happen.
"I didn't want to see Bill Elliott leave the sport," Evernham said last month.
So the calendar was set. Elliott wants to drive at the tracks he enjoys - Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas and Michigan. A note on his Web site asks patience from his fans, many of whom are trying to figure out his schedule so they can buy tickets.
Elliott will drive the No. 91 car this season, and fans will know when he's going for good: Evernham has promised to put him in the old No. 9 car for his final race.
Elliott believes he's fortunate to have a chance to bid farewell without going through the full grind of the season, the way, say, Darrell Waltrip did during a winless and somewhat frustrating "Victory Tour" in 2000.
The limited schedule allows Elliott to set other goals. He wants to spend more time with his son, Chase. He wants to tinker with cars in other venues - a dirt-track car he owns, the NASCAR truck series and maybe Busch cars, too.
"You go out and give it your best, try to win races and go from there," he said. "But the main thing for me this year is to go out and have a good time."
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