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Still Mr. Popular, Elliott Is Enjoying Driving Resurgence

March 03, 2000|SHAV GLICK

LAS VEGAS — Bill Elliott has not won a Winston Cup race since 1994, yet he is consistently voted NASCAR's most popular driver. Last year was his ninth in succession and 14th overall, even though Awesome Bill from Dawsonville finished 21st in Winston Cup points.

"When things aren't going right, it's the fans who give you that extra shot of adrenaline," Elliott said in accepting his award.

Of the 1999 season, he said, "If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all."

Besides his dismal season, in which his highest finish was fifth, Elliott's sponsor, McDonald's, announced that it would be dropping him in 2001 to back Cal Wells' second NASCAR team with rookie Anthony Lazzaro.

Perhaps with all that in mind, the shy redhead from Dawsonville, Ga., came out fighting this year. He won one of the 125-mile qualifying races in his Ford Taurus at Daytona, preventing Dale Earnhardt from winning his 11th in a row, then finished a close third in the Daytona 500, his best there since he was third in 1990.

"Last year was a bit of a struggle just going to the races," Elliott said. "We weren't really running well and things weren't going in a very good direction. I feel, right now, things have done a total 180. I'm enjoying going to the races again, I'm enjoying where I'm at."

Elliott, 44, will be at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend for the 400.

"If ever a year counted, this year needs to count," he said. "Things happen for a reason and I don't know that [losing his sponsor] was a wake-up call. Nobody needs to tell me that I need to run better when I'm running bad. But I do feel like for us to continue on, we need to make this year count."

Elliott said his second priority--after running well on the track--is to find a sponsor for next year.

"With as good as the team's performance is right now, I don't see a problem in getting a real good deal down the road," he said.

Elliott and other Ford drivers, such as Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Rusty Wallace, will have an extra incentive in Sunday's 400-mile race. If a Ford wins, it will be the manufacturer's 500th Winston Cup victory, a record.

"Ford has been great for my career and it would mean a lot to be the guy who won the 500th race, especially as successful as my career has been throughout the last 15 to 25 years," Elliott said.

Elliott, with 40 victories, is second on Ford's roster of 499 winners. Ned Jarrett, now a TV commentator and the father of Dale, is the all-time leader with 42. Winston Cup champion Dale has 20.

"We'll do our best [to catch Ned Jarrett] and take it one race at a time," Elliott said. "I feel like we've got the car to do it this year. Ford has come out with this new 2000 Taurus and it's been great, so we'll keep digging away."

Rumors that he might be lured to Ray Evernham's Dodge program next year met with this comment: "I'm a Ford man. Ford's been great to me throughout the years and my dad [George] would probably shoot me if I left."

After 26 years driving race cars, first for his father and then for such high-profile owners as Harry Melling and Junior Johnson before becoming a driver-owner, Elliott has seen enough of sponsor shifting not to be bitter about losing McDonald's, even to a newcomer.

"Obviously, [Wells has] done a good job of selling. If that's where McDonald's wants to go, that's perfectly fine with me," he said. "I've not performed well in my own eyes . . . and that's pretty much McDonald's prerogative."

The seeds of Elliott's popularity go back to his early days in Winston Cup in the early '80s when he was so shy he hated to even sign autographs and his country-boy look reminded NASCAR fans of Huck Finn.

"I'm sure I was totally amazed that somebody would want my autograph," he said. "I grew up in a very small town and kind of lived a sheltered life. My dad ran a building-supply house and we worked very hard at that. I just wanted to race, that's all I wanted to do. I didn't know about all this other stuff that came with it. I had a real hard time in the mid-80s, trying to deal with that."

That was when he won 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million--designated races at Daytona, Talladega and Darlington--in 1985. Even before that, however, Elliott was the people's choice, winning his first most-popular-driver award in 1984.

Since then, only Darrell Waltrip, in 1989 and 1990, has broken Elliott's spell over Winston Cup fans.

Popularity has come with a price, though, the price of attending to sponsors' demands.

"To give you an example, when I started in Winston Cup racing, you could sponsor a car for a year for probably $100,000," he said. "Back then, $100,000 was a lot of money but they didn't expect a lot back from you. . . .

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