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It was the summer of 2002, the weather was hot, the days were long, and baseball and NASCAR were in their dog days of summer. However, on one August Sunday afternoon Bill Elliott provided the type of relief that only can come from a NASCAR fan's favorite driver doing something great.
Perhaps his real return to glory, and the real "We Are Marshall" moment occured nearly a year ago, in November of 2001. Bill Elliott, a Winston Cup Champion, a 40 time winner, a two time Daytona 500 winner, a a winner of the Winston Million and NASCAR's all time most popular driver had not won a race since Labor Day of 1994 when he piloted Junior Johnson's Budweiser Ford to victory lane at Darlington. You want to talk about the mother of all slumps.
During the dry spell Elliott tried his hand at returning to his Dawsonville roots only to find running a family operated single car team just wasn't feasible like it was when the Elliotts had their heyday in the 80's. Not to mention, Harry Melling wasn't there to run the operation, Dan Elliott wasn't part of the crew, and Ernie Elliott wasn't the crew chief. Not to mention, who's successful with a car numbered 94 anyway? So the situation wasn't exactly the same. The bottom line, they didn't find the right "combination" (a word Elliott used frequently in the 80s.
Elliott had moments where he tantalized and teased fans with promise, with chances to win races. In 1995 he led the most laps at Indianpolis in the Brickyard 400, only to fade and finish 4th. He had a chance to win at Michigan in the summer of the same season. In 1997 Elliott seemed to have his third Daytona 500 locked up, only to be overwhelmed by a trio of Rick Hendrick cars in the final moments. He dominated the Southern 500 that year, only to have changing weather conditions adversely affect the handling of his car, relegating him to a 4th place finish. In 1998 he had perhaps the best car in the field at Talladega in May, before Ward Burton sent him and Dale Earnhardt into a fiery mangle of sheet metal into the wall, an incident that seemingly was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back in Elliott's career. Over the next two and half seasons Elliott would only seriously contend for victory three more times. A third place at the 2000 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, and a dominating performance in the 2000 Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July only to have it end in a hard collision with the wall. The mere fact that it was so easy to pick out the highlights of Elliott's run as an owner driver show just how few and far between the good moments were, and over the last two plus seasons, all signs seemed to indicate that the veteran had passed his prime.
Elliott's saving grace came in the form of Ray Evernham, the man largely responsible for Jeff Gordon's ascension to NASCAR stardom, and the man responsible for Dodge's re-entry into the highest level of motorsports in America. While many scoffed at the decision, Evernham appointed Elliott to be his lead driver in 2001, confident the veteran still had something left, ala Terry Labonte and his move to Rick Hendrick, ironicaly, in 1994.
Elliott and Evernham started with a bang, winning the pole for the season opening Daytona 500 and finishing 5th. However, it became very apparent the team still had some work to do as they struggled over the first half of the season. He wouldn't finish in the top five again until Pocono in July. He backed that up with a top ten at Indianapolis and then led a third of the race at Michigan before finishing 3rd in the first race Elliott legitimately contended for a win in over a year. Improvement was evident. Then came Homestead, in Miami. Elliott won the pole, led early, comfortably rode in the top five the duration of the day, and in the closing laps passed teammate Casey Atwood to end a drought many thought would never end.
In 2002 Elliott led more than ten laps in four races in the first half of the year and had two top five finishes, including a runner-up at Dover. He then won Pocono, setting the stage for the 2002 Brickyard 400.
From it's inagural race in 1994, the Brickyard 400 quickly became one of the premier events on the NASCAR circuit, in the eyes of the fans and competitors. The prestige of the track, as well as the enormous purse, was quickly putting Indy on a level not far behind the Daytona 500 and ahead of just about every other race on the schedule. Elliott had always run well at Indy, and you just figured at some point he'd break through. Well break through he did.
He just missed winning the pole, qualifying on the outside of the front row beside local favorite Tony Stewart. During practice that weekend every driver in the field was referring to the "Nine" as the favorite to win on Sunday. Before the race everyone in pre-race interviews said they didn't know if they had anything for the "nine". Man, it sounded like the 80s all over again. Once the green flag fell it looked like the 80s as well. A red car with a "9" on it dominated the day.
Tony Stewart led roughly the first 35 laps or so as Elliott seemed content to patiently ride just feet behind the Home Depot Pontiac. However, once Elliott got the lead, it was all she wrote for the rest of the field. Stewart was never able to pull away from Elliott during the races early stages. Elliott routinely walked off and left the competition, leaving no doubt who owned the best car on the track. Late race pit strategy by an Elliott rival during the 80s, Rusty Wallace, enabled Wallace to inherit the race lead with less than 30 laps to go. However, it became clear that it was inevitable that Elliott would supplant Wallace and win the race. Sure enough, Elliott sat tucked right behind Wallace's Miller Lite Ford waiting for just the right moment, and as the redhead from Dawsonville, Ga had done so many times in the past, 42 times actually, he pounced when the moment was right and didn't look back.
Perhaps most telling was an interview with Wallace's crew chief, Billy Wilburn, after a late race caution bunched the field back up. Wilburn, with his driver lining up behind Elliott's Dodge, said he hoped they could "get out of here with a top two finish". Wilburn knew they weren't getting back by Elliott. Nobody was passing Elliott on this day. In fact, I don't remember a point in the race where someone made a green flag pass on his red Dodge. Elliott streaked away from the field on the restart and proceeded to victory at Indianapolis.
Rusty Wallace would later say he "kinda smilled when Bill passed me. I remember everyone saying how washed up he is, and how he's through". Elliott's wins at Homestead and Pocono were nice, but they weren't the Brickyard 400. In victory lane, a jubilant Elliott claimed "this was the biggest". His smile in victory lane seemed to back that statement up.
In 2005 I attended a Brickyard 400 and while touring around inside the speedway took notice of all the banners up commemorating past Brickyard 400 winners. Looking up at Elliott's banner I smiled, remember the day Elliott proved all the doubters wrong, and proved he still had plenty left. I remembered the day Elliott traveled back in time and made it fun to be a Bill Elliott fan, and gave himself and his fans the one jewel missing from his crown. Elliott would win once again in his career, but over the last 10 years of his career, no moment was bigger and brighter than Elliott's kissing the bricks in 2002.