At 47, renewed Elliott aims for Winston top 10

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

October 27, 2002|By Sandra McKee

When Winston Cup driver Bill Elliott arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway for today's NAPA 500, his head was full of memories.

It was 10 years ago that he won this race. Ten years ago that the late Alan Kulwicki won the Winston Cup championship. Ten years ago that Jeff Gordon made his series debut. And, 10 years ago that Richard Petty drove his last race.

"It was a big day," Elliott said. "Going into that race, Davey Allison was in the [Winston Cup] points lead, and it was his to lose. I was within striking distance, and I did all I could do. I won the race. But Alan did what he had to do, and he won the championship."

Elliott lost the title by 10 points that day to Kulwicki, who would die in an airplane accident early the next season.

It's been 10 years since Elliott has been that close to winning the championship. In fact, that season was as close as he's been able to get since winning the title in 1988.

He hasn't been in the top 10 since 1997, when he finished eighth. And, until teaming up with car owner Ray Evernham last season, he, like almost every driver on the far side of 40 who hasn't won in a while, had to hear critics who questioned his ability to not only win but also to remain competitive.

But now, at 47, Elliott is just 38 points out of 10th in the Winston Cup standings. He has two wins this season, six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. With a little luck, he could have been in the thick of this season's points battle.

"You might say I've come full circle," he said during a conference call. "I feel I'm the happiest now that I've ever been. I do feel revitalized, and I feel pretty fortunate. I'm proud to have a second chance, and I hope to do better next year."

He started his career driving for Harry Melling and won the title with him before moving on to the Junior Johnson team in 1992. Three years later, in 1995, he began driving for himself. He did that until 2001, when Evernham rescued him by hiring him to be the anchor of his new Dodge team.

Through it all, the good years and the bad, Elliott - reminded that of three men competing for the 1992 title he is the only one alive - agreed that he is a fortunate man.

And as he looked at the points race with four races left in the season, he was reminded that the top three contenders - Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin - are working on their first titles. He was asked what advice he would give them - or anyone who might win this championship.

"I would tell them to treat it like there is no tomorrow, because you never know," Elliott said. "Alan, unfortunately, didn't live long after he succeeded in winning his title. [Dale] Earnhardt, with all his success, wasn't able to live and enjoy it. I wish I'd done more with mine. Yet, I'm not going to regret things. I won it, and I'm proud I won it. I just wish I had enjoyed it a little more at the time, and that's what I'd tell them. Just enjoy it a little more."

CART for sale?

Just a few weeks ago, it was suggested here that the CART Series was no longer a destination series but had become a steppingstone to other places - whether it be Formula One, the Indy Racing League or even the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Last week, the Toronto Sun reported CART's directors will consider selling 51 percent of their shares to Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's top man.

Ecclestone and CART president Chris Pook admit they've met, and a source close to CART, speaking to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Ecclestone and Pook have been working on a deal that would bring the series under Formula One's control. Such a deal would give the Formula One series a major marketing boost in America.

In a recent AP interview, Pook said, "We'll do whatever it takes" to keep CART a viable series.

Sutton is class rookie

Crownsville's Kelly Sutton completed her rookie year in the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series this weekend in Atlanta. Sutton, 30 and the mother of two, has multiple sclerosis but has not let the disease put her down.

She finished 15th in Friday's race, placing her 12th in points for the season, including a top 10 finish in Memphis. Her total winnings were $13,330.

"It's been a good season," Sutton said.

For two years, Sutton has been riding a learning curve. A year ago, running limited races, she was 32nd in points.

"We really pulled together as a team this year," she said. "We faced some hardship and challenges, but we have taken every opportunity to try new things, embrace technology and put the best car on the track every week. Next season, I know we will be even better."

Just streaking

Jimmy Vasser was to make his 162nd straight start in today's Honda 300 in Surfers Paradise, Australia. His streak began in the 1993 season finale in Monterey, Calif. Vasser has the longest current string of consecutive starts and will move within two of Emerson Fittipaldi, who is second all-time with 164.

Al Unser Jr. holds CART's record with 192 straight starts.

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