Awesome Bill Is Back John Hayes
July 31, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
It's not amazing enough that a man of his age can still win poles and races, but rather that his career has bridged such a large span of time between success, frustration, and now the light at the end of the tunnel. Let's hop in the way-back machine and take a peek at a truly awe-inspiring career.
It all started in northern Georgia in the late 70's. Bill's father George Elliott knew that Bill had a thing for cars. When George found that Bill had turned a street car into a race car, he decided to give young Bill a crack at racing. Immediate success at places like Woodstock, GA. provided George a glimpse at the talent Bill had. Knowing that bigger fish were to be fried outside of Georgia and wanting to keep his boys off the back road racing scene, George decided to give the Winston Cup circuit a shot. With Bill behind the wheel, Ernie working on the engines, and Dan dealing with the transmissions, the red-headed Elliott bunch headed out on what would become an awesome adventure.
As is the case with most new teams, the boys had their growing pains. However, the group began showing sparks of potential and folks began to notice. The 1979 Southern 500 was one such race as young Bill finished second. One of those folks who took notice was Benny Parsons, who at the time was sponsored by Melling Tool Company. After Benny had quit driving full-time, heconvinced owner Harry Melling to sponsor Bill and their team. Harry agreed to sponsor Elliott in 12 races in 1981. By the end of the year, Melling had bought the team and set forth on a full-time schedule for 1982.
Inconsistency plagued the team in '82 but that potential was still there. Finally, in 1983 Bill Elliott won his first Winston Cup race at Riverside, California. Ironically, the man he beat that day was Benny Parsons. Success notwithstanding, the financial burden of Harry Melling sponsoring his own team became too much and he was almost forced to sell the operation. Enter Coors Brewing Company who agreed to sponsor the group full time starting in 1984. Finally enjoying the financial resources the team so desparately needed, the pieces were beginning to mold dring 1984. By the team the season started in 1985, a full fledged machine had been created. The racing scene was about to witness something never thought possible.
Before the 1985 season, series sponsor Winston introduced a new program called the Winston Million. If any driver could win 3 of the "Big 4" events in the same year, that driver would win one million dollars. Elliott and the red Coors #9 dominated the Daytona 500 and took home the first piece of the puzzle. The next big event was the Winston 500 at Talladega. A mechanical gremlin cost Elliott two laps early in the going but Bill would not be deterred. In what still stands today as one of the greatest comebacks in racing history, Elliott made up those two laps under green and went on to win the race!
Immediately the focus shifted to the World 600 where a million dollar prize awaited. It wasn't meant to be at Charlotte but the team had one more chance at the Southern 500 in Darlington. Intense media coverage prompted the Melling team to hire armed guards to keep the throng away so the team could prepare. As the race went along, it was clear that Elliott was not the fastest car on the track but he hung in there and waited for his opportunity. First, Dale Earnhardt spun in turn two leaving only the lightning quick Cale Yarborough in Bill's path. Suddenly, smoke began to billow from Cale's Hardees 28 car as a power steering line broke and Elliott found himself in the lead. He would hang on to win the race and touch off a truly awesome celebration. Fake dollar bills cascaded down on Victory Lane as the entire racing world now knew who Bill Elliott was.
Bill went on to win a total of eleven races in 1985 but he lost the title to Darrell Waltrip at season's end. 1986 didn't live up to the previous year as Bill had only two wins (both at Michigan) the entire year but he secured another top-five points finish.
1987 was a better year but Bill was shadowed by Dale Earnhardt who won eleven races of his own and won the Winston Cup by an enormous margin. However, Elliott did post a lap of 212.809 MPH at Talladega which will likely forever stand in the record books as the fastest pole speed in NASCAR history.
Along came 1988, and finally the consistency that had dogged Bill and cost him the title in '85 came his way. He finally won on a short track at Bristol and followed that up with wins at Dover twice, at Pocono, the Pepsi 400, and the Southern 500. He entered the final race at Atlanta with a large points lead but saw that lead whittled down to a mere 24 points by a hard-charging Rusty Wallace. However, Bill hung on and he had won that elusive Winston Cup.
Bill quickly found that winning a title and defending one were two different things indeed. A practice crash at Daytona broke Bill's wrist and put the team behind the 8-ball from the very start. Bill found victory lane at Michigan, Pocono, and Phoenix but he was never in contention to repeat his title run of the year before.
1990 was a successful year with a few more wins and another top-five in points but the season ended on a very tragic note. While leading the season finale at Atlanta, Elliott made what was to be a routine final pit stop. Suddenly, Ricky Rudd's car spun in oil on pit road and Rudd's car crashed into Elliott's crew while they were changing tires. Tire changer Mike Rich was killed in the incident which ultimately led to pit road speeds in the coming year. The team grieved heavily as they tried to focus on next season.
Things just didn't seem right from the start of '91. The traditional red number 9 was painted blue to market the Coors Light brand and the team struggled mightily. A victory at the Pepsi 400 was the lone bright spot and it was announced that Coors would not be back the next year.
In what was a tough decision to make, Bill decided to join Junior Johnson and his famous Budweiser 11 ride for 1992. After a wreck in the Daytona 500, Bill went on to win the next four races in a row at Rockingham, Richmond, Atlanta, and Darlington and immediately staked their claim for a title run. The team wouldn't win again until the famous last race of 1992, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta. It was Richard Petty's last race, Jeff Gordon's first, and six drivers still had a shot at the Winston Cup. At the end of the day, it was Alan Kulwicki who won the Cup by a tiny 10 point margin over Elliott. Crew chief Tim Brewer was largely blamed for the loss due to what Junior Johnson deemed poor pit strategy and Brewer was let go. From that point on, the Johnson/Elliott legacy went downhill.
1993 marked the first time in almost a decade that Elliott did not win a race. 1994 brought a victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington. Nobody in their right mind knew it at the time, but it would be Bill's last win until 6 years later.
Elliott and Johnson parted ways for 1995 as Elliott and McDonalds entered a new deal where Elliott would become an owner driver. The team ran well in 1995 but no wins would come their way. 1996 was a bad year for Bill as he broke his femur in a crash at Talladega that forced him to miss seven races. The team again ran decently in 1997 but still could not crack victory lane. 1998 was a struggle as the rigors of being an owner-driver began to take it's toll. 1999 ad 2000 weren't much better as it appeared that the days of owning your own car were coming to a close. On top of that, rumors of retirement were rampant and many fans had written Bill off for good.
McDonalds had seen enough and told Bill they were leaving for Cal Well's new team for 2001. Then, came the call that put Bill back on track. Ray Evernham had left Jeff Gordon to become the leader of Dodge's return to Winston Cup. Ray wanted a veteran driver and a young rookie to form his new two-car team. Bill Elliott was the man and Casey Atwood would be the kid as a new era of Awesome Bill was about to be unleashed.
Much like the Melling team, this new Evernham juggernaut had their share of growing pains but Bill started to make appearances towards the front a bit more regularly. The team kept getting better and better and when the series arrived at Homestead, Awesome Bill put that number 9 on the pole. As the race came to it's conclusion it came down to the teammates, Elliott and Atwood. Atwood seemingly had the race won but a costly slip with a few laps to go handed the lead over to Bill and finally the drought was over! Bill Elliott had returned to Victory Lane!
This season has shown even more improvement. Before last week's race, the team had proven to be a worthy contender as they were firmly entrenched in the top ten in points and Bill had won three poles. Pocono once again showed Awesome Bill on the pole and he was strong throughout the race. He dogged Sterling Marlin and Bill made finally made a ballsy move on the outside of turn one and went on to a cruising victory.
Not only did that further silence his critics but it has placed Bill within distance of his second Winston Cup points title. Some of his best tracks are looming ahead on the schedule and we all know the championship pedigree Ray Evernham has. A title is not out of the question.
It has been an Awesome ride and it shows no signs of ending any time soon. Awesome Bill, it's good to have you back.