Elliott Choice Paying Dividends

When Ray Evernham hired Bill Elliott to drive his for his fledgling No. 9 Dodge team a little less than two years ago, some were skeptical around the Winston Cup garage area.

After all, Elliott hadn’t won a race for over six years, and his long and illustrious driving career appeared to be in the twilight stages. In his mid-40s, some said, this would just never work.

There’s nothing more that Evernham likes than to prove his naysayers wrong, and that’s exactly what he’s done with Elliott, who continues every week to return to the form that once made him one of the most feared drivers on the Winston Cup circuit.

Following his strong runner-up performance in Sunday’s MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover International Speedway, “Awesome Bill” from Dawsonville has pulled into ninth place in the Winston Cup standings. He’s 287 points behind fellow Dodge driver and points leader Sterling Marlin, but he’s only 76 points behind fifth-place Rusty Wallace.

Elliott showed his mettle late in Sunday’s race when he charged into to the second position, overtaking Jeff Burton in the final few laps. Had he had a few more laps, he might have even run down rookie Jimmie Johnson, who earned his second victory of the season.

“Bill’s on a roll,” Evernham said. “I just love the guy. If it weren’t for him, some days I’d have to slit my wrist. I love him. I wished I had hooked up with him years ago. I felt like we had the second best car (Sunday), and we finished second.

“I’m really proud of (crew chief) Mike Ford. They’ve got a good plan, and they’re trying to get Bill back up on stage (at the post-season awards banquet in New York). That’s one of their goals, and they’re doing a good job of it. I’m really proud of them.”

Elliott hasn’t been “up on stage” since 1997, when he finished eighth in the Winston Cup standings driving the No. 94 Ford he owned himself. In the following three years, Elliott finished 18th, 21st and 21st, respectively, in the points, before coming over to drive for Evernham in 2001.

Last season – paralleling the performance of the Dodges – Elliott got off to a slow start but rebounded and came on strong the second half of the year. He topped the season off with a victory at Miami-Homestead Speedway, his first trip to victory lane since the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1994.

This season, Elliott had only three top-10 finishes in his first nine races, then scored his first top-five with a fourth at California in late April. Since then he’s remained steady, capped off by Sunday’s solid run.

“I think it is team performance,” Elliott said. “We’ve come a long way in the last couple of weeks. We’ve learned a lot. We’re getting along great as a race team, and everybody has seemed to jell. I think we’re coming into our own right now.

“(Ricky) Rudd ran good today, and several other guys, but at the end of the day to come out of here (Dover) and run in the Top 5 and Top 10 most of the day, compared to what we did here a year ago, it’s quite an accomplishment for us. We had a good run the second race of the year last year at Pocono. We just need to keep expanding on what we’ve done and do better each and every week.”

The top-five finish was Elliott’s first at Dover since the fall race of 1992. It was his first spring top-five there since winning in 1988.

Elliott said he feels very comfortable on the track and with his No. 9 Dodge team, and that good things are beginning to happen.

“We’ve found everything we need in the race team,” Elliott said. “The guys that put this racecar together week in and week out are great, they do a heck of a job. All the guys are doing a good job back at the motor shop. They’re putting a good effort behind it, and the results are beginning to show.”

Casey Atwood finished 14th Sunday in the No. 7 Ultra-Evernham Motorsports Dodge, but Jeremy Mayfield finished a disappointing 35th. Evernham said Mayfield’s program needs to get headed in the right direction, but other than that, he’s happy with his teams’ performance.

“Casey and (crew chief) Tony (Furr) are clicking, and you’d better watch out,” Evernham said. I’m telling you, that 7 car, we’ve got a little more work to do there, but when they get going, they’re going to be good. They’re clicking. It’s all about people, and we’ve got ‘em clicking. We’ve got to get Jeremy clicking a little bit and we’ll be really happy.”

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