Coke Zero 400: Is Bill Elliott a Serious Contender for the Win?

Tyler Ward@twardyyyAnalyst IJuly 4, 2012

TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 05:  Bill Elliott, driver of the #97 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 5, 2012 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm a humongous Bill Elliott fan, as he's my favorite driver of all time. My grandparents and parents were Elliott fans as well, so it was just bound for him to be my favorite driver. In fact, the 2002 Brickyard 400 remains one of my favorite races, along with the 2010 Daytona 500.

But I digress.

Before the 2012 season got underway, it was announced that "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" would participate in July's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Elliott will be piloting the No. 50 Walmart Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports. The owner, Steve Turner, is already fielding three cars in both the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.

Earlier this season in the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona, James Buescher upset the field and took home the checkered flag—however, that could mainly be attributed to the massive pile-up at the exit of Turn 4. But regardless, a win is a win.

Additionally, Nelson Piquet Jr., who drives for Turner Motorsports full-time in the Nationwide Series, took home the checkered flag at Road America in the Nationwide race. It is still Piquet's only win in NASCAR.

The aforementioned Buescher, another full-time in the Truck Series for Steve Turner, has also won twice in Truck Series this year—once at Kansas and the other last Friday night at Kansas. Kasey Kahne also won a Truck Series race at Rockingham earlier in the year, the first time the Truck Series had ever visited the famed track and the first time since 2004 that a NASCAR event was even held at the one-mile track.

Simply put, Turner Motorsports fields quality cars that always seem to be in the hunt to win races. After all, the team recorded three wins last season in the Nationwide Series, all with different drivers.

Mark Martin won the third race of the season at Las Vegas in the No. 32 machine. Justin Allgaier would then win a few weeks later at Chicago, and two races later, Reed Sorenson won at the tricky Road America in Elkhart Lake.

When Bill Elliott takes the green flag this Saturday night, it will be the first time in the team's history that it has ever participated in a Sprint Cup event.

Because Turner Motorsports has had great success in the Nationwide Series and the Truck Series, it begs the question: Can Elliott's machine compete with the other 42 cars?

I firmly believe that he will be able to do so. And it all starts with who will be piloting the No. 50. That's Bill Elliott, a former Cup Champion and one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history. Throughout his illustrious, Hall of Fame-caliber career, Elliott won 44 times at the Cup level, including two times at the Daytona 500 and two times in the July edition.

Elliott is a phenomenal driver, and he showed that over his long career. Turner has a great driver who can compete, as it's not like Mike Bliss, Mike Skinner, J.J. Yeley, David Stremme or Josh Wise is piloting the car. He has one of the best drivers in NASCAR history for this weekend.

However, it may hurt that Elliott hasn't participated in a full-time season since 2003. Elliott also attempted to make the Daytona 500 this year, but was in undoubtedly lackluster equipment brought to him by Joe Nemechek.

Elliott also made the field at Talladega earlier this year, again in mediocre equipment by Nemechek. The 56-year-old only drove for 37 laps before putting it in the garage for a 37th-place finish.

Since Elliott stopped racing full-time at the conclusion of the 2003 season, the Georgia native has participated in 96 events.

During that stretch, Elliott has driven for many different owners, including the aforementioned Nemechek, the Wood Brothers, Dusty Whitney, James Finch, John Carter, Michael Waltrip and Ray Evernham, the owner who seemingly revitalized Elliott's career for a couple of seasons in the early 2000s.

With Nemechek, Whitney, Carter and Finch, Elliott was driving in mediocre equipment. When he drove for Michael Waltrip in a few races in 2006, Waltrip was just getting his feet in the water. Waltrip simply didn't have the equipment he does now for Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin.

The Wood Brothers and Ray Evernham gave him decent equipment, but he would have likely never won in those cars if he drove the full 36-race season.

With Turner, I believe he'll be in the best equipment he has had since he stopped racing full-time at the conclusion of the 2003 season. As evidenced by his stats, Turner has fielded some fairly good cars and has won a total of eight times in the Nationwide and Truck Series over the past two seasons.

It also benefits Elliott that anything can happen at Daytona and Talladega.

As we are all aware, Trevor Bayne shocked the NASCAR world last season when he won the season-opening Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers. It was just Bayne's second career start at the Sprint Cup level, and it is undoubtedly one of the biggest upsets in racing history, not just in NASCAR.

Not to mention, David Ragan then won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona later in the year, which remains his first and only Sprint Cup win.

Additionally, from 1985 to 2002, there were numerous upsets at Daytona.

During the 1985 July edition, Greg Sacks went on to capture the checkered flag for the first time in his Cup career. To this day, it remains Sacks' only win at NASCAR's premier level.

One of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history happened five years later at the 1990 Daytona 500. For the longest time, Dale Earnhardt appeared poised to capture his first Daytona 500 in his illustrious career. However, on the final lap, Earnhardt ran over some debris that was left behind by Rick Wilson.

Earnhardt somehow ran over that small piece of debris and shredded his right rear tire. Derrike Cope went on to pass him and take the checkered flag for the first time in his Cup career.

Four years later at the Pepsi 400, Jimmy Spencer narrowly beat Ernie Irvan to the finish line by a mere .008 seconds, which remains as the sixth-closest finish in a Sprint Cup Series points race. It was the first time that Spencer, the pilot of the No. 27 McDonalds Ford for Junior Johnson, won a Cup race. Three weeks later, Spencer won again at Talladega, but that would be the last time he would visit victory lane.

Three seasons later at the same event, John Andretti took home the checkered flag for the first time in his career while piloting the No. 98 RCA machine for the legendary Cale Yarborough. Andretti would win two years later at Martinsville for Richard Petty, which would be the second and final time he ever won a race.

The 2001 and 2002 editions of the Daytona 500 both featured upsets, as well.

In 2001, Michael Waltrip won the first race of his Cup career with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind him. However, Waltrip's first trip to victory lane would be overshadowed by the death of the legendary Dale Earnhardt on the final lap.

The very next season, thanks to a foolish decision by Sterling Marlin, Ward Burton won the Daytona 500, a race I attended. Throughout his career, Burton won five Cup races, only one of which was on a superspeedway.

The 2010 edition of the Daytona 500 could be considered an upset, as Jamie McMurray managed to cross the finish line before anyone else. There were numerous drivers breathing down his neck, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle, but McMurray held on for the fourth Cup win of his career.

The point I'm trying to make is that anything can happen at Daytona. As evidenced by the many upsets I listed above, anything is plausible. You just never know what could happen, especially during last year's Daytona 500.

Trevor Bayne was driving much more inferior equipment when compared to the likes of Roush-Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing and others. There was no doubt that he should not have won that race, but he managed to pull off the amazing upset.

Not only that, but Bob Jenkins' David Gilliland (third), JTG-Daugherty's Bobby Labonte (fourth) and Barney Visser's Regan Smith (seventh) all finished in the top 10, as well.

Anything is plausible. I'll say that much.

Bill Elliott will undoubtedly be in more inferior equipment than most of the field. But if there's anything Trevor Bayne and other drivers have taught us, it's that it doesn't matter when you go to Daytona or Talladega.

I don't know if Elliott's No. 50 Walmart Chevy will be able to contend for the win, although it would be extraordinarily awesome. However, I think it's very possible that Elliott could record a top-five or top-10 finish if he stays out of trouble and all the cards fall in the right places.

We'll see what happens when the green flag drops Saturday night.


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