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Motor Sports
Mark Bechtel
August 12, 2002
Old Man WinnerDown and nearly out in 2000, Bill Elliott, 46, is the Brickyard champ and a title threat
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August 12, 2002

Motor Sports

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VICTORIES

AGES

2001

2002

20-29

15 (41%)

5 (24%)

30-39

10 (28%)

7 (33%)

40-49

11 (31%)

9 (43%)

Old Man Winner
Down and nearly out in 2000, Bill Elliott, 46, is the Brickyard champ and a title threat

There was much talk at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday about aging NASCAR drivers. After Jimmy Spencer booted Kurt Busch into the fence at 200 mph on Lap 36 of the Brickyard 400, their third on-track dustup in the past year, the 23-year-old Busch called the 45-year-old Spencer an "old, decrepit has-been" into every microphone stuck in his face. (For good measure, he also called him a "decrepit, old has-been.")

Then there was the guy who eventually won the race. A year and a half ago Bill Elliott, at age 45, looked like a man who was headed down the road to Old, Decrepit Has-beenville, or worse—early retirement back home in Blairsville, Ga. The 1988 Winston Cup champion, Elliott had finished 21st in the points standings in 1999 and 2000 and hadn't won a race since September 1994, at Darlington. He had spent the previous six years struggling behind the wheel of a car he owned and that his sponsor, McDonald's, had dropped during the 2000 campaign. Money was so tight that crew members were sleeping on the floor at the race shop. So he sold the team to Ray Evernham at the end of the 2000 season and took a job driving for Evernham's fledgling Dodge program.

In the last 18 months Elliott has won three races, including back-to-back victories in the Pennsylvania 500 and the Brickyard, and he is now sitting in sixth place in the tide chase, only 210 points out of the top spot. "Bill went from being like, 'Man, this is a struggle,' to where he's the guy to beat," says another oldie-but-goodie, 45-year-old Rusty Wallace, who finished second to Elliott on Sunday.

Elliott is as old school as they come. Growing up in Dawson-ville, Ga., he developed a penchant for colloquial syntax constructions that would make an English teacher blanch. (After the Brickyard he noted that by running 295 practice laps at the track two weeks before, "I done run two races before I got here.") He flourished in the 1980s, when drivers could more easily make a living as a racer and an owner. But he's enjoying his renaissance working for the New Jersey-born Evernham, 44, who made his mark as Jeff Gordon's crew chief in the 1990s, when the sport became more high-tech and corporate.

Elliott and Evernham seem like an odd couple, but they have one important element in common: They can talk about cars all day long. Evernham got to know Elliott when setting up cars for the IROC series, and even after finding fame and fortune with Gordon he remained in close contact with Elliott. "When you talk to a driver you can pretty much tell if that guy is on the ball," says Evernham. "When I was leaving to start [the Dodge operation], I'd talk to Jeff Gordon a lot and he'd say of Bill, 'Look, you need to get that guy.' "

So he did. Evernham called Elliott and offered him a lifeline. "If you stay in this sport long enough, you're going to ride that roller coaster up and down," says Elliott. "The guys who have had the most successful careers have had stable foundations. I was stable in the '80s doing my own deal, but then the sport got so big I couldn't keep up. [After mat] I just kept going down different roads, and I never could put things together in the right direction. I feel like I've had a second chance at life. I could have walked away just about easier than I could have stayed."

It took half a year for Evernham's program to get off the ground, but by late 2001 Elliott, Evernham and crew chief Mike Ford were clicking. In his last 38 starts Elliott has 15 top 10 finishes. "He hasn't lost anything," says Wallace. "He's got a crew chief and a team that's really behind him. They're well-oiled. They're running great. Their pit stops are fast, and Evernham's doing a great job running the company. They're on it."

Petty Enterprises' Future
A Fittipaldi To the Rescue?

Kyle Petty is fond of saying that Petty Enterprises is auto racing's equivalent of the New York Yankees. If that's the case, then last year for the Pettys was the equivalent of the Yanks' 1990 season, when the most feared Bomber was Steve Balboni and the club finished last in the American League East. With Kyle running the business his grandfather Lee and his dad, Richard, had built into a NASCAR powerhouse, the team's three-car stable was awful: John Andretti finished 31st in the Winston Cup standings, Buckshot Jones was 41st and Kyle, who failed to qualify for 12 races, ended up 43rd.

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