For a span of 52 races former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott has been the driver of the #21 Ford fielded by the Wood Brothers one of the most historically significant teams in the sport. However, more than a few eyebrows were raised with the recent announcement that said the Woods Brothers were placing 19 year old racing protégé Trevor Bayne in their car for the 2011 season. The element of surprise here was the fact that the Wood Brothers chose to pave their future with such a young, although very talented, driver. Traditionally, the Wood Brothers have always chosen to place a seasoned veteran in the seat of their race cars.
[media-credit name=”FMCM” align=”alignleft” width=”201″][/media-credit]That announcement was followed by questions regarding the racing future of the 55 year old Bill Elliott. Could he find another ride with any amount of substantial quality? Would the Dawsonville-Georgia native, known to fans as “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” seriously consider hanging up the helmet and announce his retirement? The answer came back on January 19th when team owner James Finch, of Phoenix Racing, announced that he had signed Elliott to drive his #09 Chevrolet. The announcement also meant that, after decades of driving Fords plus a two year stint in a Dodge, Elliott would be campaigning a car with a Chevrolet bowtie on its nose for the first time in his career.
The master plan calls for Elliott to drive a minimum 18 races for Finch and Phoenix Racing. They are hopeful that additional sponsorship will come their way so they can race the entire Sprint Cup schedule. Nick Harrison will be on the pit box as crew chief. Finch also announced that the power plants for their Chevrolet will be supplied by Hendrick Motorsports.
This new collaboration will begin with next month’s Daytona 500 and anticipation is already mounting for the team because this is a track that Elliott has enjoyed success at. He has four NASCAR Sprint Cup wins there including two Daytona 500’s. James Finch’s operation has also enjoyed some good runs at Daytona as well. In the recent past they have compiled finishes of third, fourth, ninth and 12th. Their first and only Cup win came at NASCAR’s other high banked restrictor plate track. They won at Talladega in 2009 with Brad Keselowski driving their #09.
The level of anticipation quickly hit a higher level following the recent Sprint Cup pre season test sessions at Daytona. Climbing into a Chevrolet race car for the first time, Elliott seemingly took things easy on the first day of testing. But, by the time the three day session concluded, he moved his new ride from 28th to 14th on the speed charts. It was considered by many to be a very encouraging start.
The enthusiasm was certainly echoed in recent statements from both principals. “It’s big for us, and big for Chevrolet to get Bill Elliott,” Finch said adding “it’s the first time in his career he’s committed to race a Chevrolet. With the right equipment, he’s going to be ready.”
Describing his new ride as a really good deal, Elliott said “James has really good race cars and there’s no doubt about the Hendrick (Motorsports) equipment. After all, look at the championships they’ve won. This may be my last really good chance as a driver. I’m going to give it my best shot. I feel like I’m still in good shape, and I thought I ran pretty good last year.”
Finch and Phoenix Racing finished 39th in the 2010 Sprint Cup owner’s points. That means they will not have a guaranteed starting berth during the first five races of the new season. But Finch will be the first to tell you that his new driver is very good at qualifying noting “he was just a couple of hundredths of a second off of the pole at Homestead last year.” There’s also the availability of Elliott’s provisional starting berths as a past NASCAR champion if needed. Finch is also aware that Elliott has the capability of being a strong race finisher and will likely make quick work of getting his team back into the all important top 35.
Also benefiting Phoenix Racing will be Elliott’s vast amount of racing experience from a career that has spanned 35 years. During his tenure he has compiled some amazing numbers that include 821 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts which has led to 44 wins, 175 top five finishes and 320 top ten finishes. His expertise at qualifying has led to 55 poles. Over the years Elliott has raced 237,304 NASCAR laps, totaling 306,756.3 miles, with 11,413 laps led. His career earnings has topped a whopping $45 million.
With those numbers came impressive, and well deserved, accolades for Elliott. In 1985 “Awesome Bill” became “Million Dollar Bill” after he became the first driver to win the Winston Million. This special program, sponsored by R J Reynolds Tobacco Company, offered one million dollars to any driver who could win at least three of four of NASCAR’s crown jewel races at that time. Elliott pulled off the feat by winning the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington.
In 1987 Elliot set a NASCAR record for the fastest one lap speed, 212.809 MPH, at Talladega. That record still stands today because NASCAR later implemented the use of restrictor plates to slow the cars down at this super fast speedway. The following year Elliott had another outstanding season and won the coveted NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. 1998 saw him receive the extreme honor of being named as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.
Phoenix Racing will need to insure that they have an ample inventory of hats, shirts and souvenirs on hand. That’s because Bill Elliott has been named NASCAR’s most popular driver a whopping 16 times yet another series record he holds.
With career stats of this caliber, it’s no wonder that he’s known as “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”