BROOKLYN, Mich. -157 A hush came over the usually rowdy race crowd when they pulled Bill Elliott from his battered car and placed his limp body on a stretcher.
The crash last April at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway, where Elliott set all the records for speed, left NASCAR's most popular driver glassy-eyed, frightened and with a badly broken leg.
Would Elliott ever be the same? Could "Awesome Bill" be awesome again?
He answered the questions at Michigan Speedway last Sunday. Elliott's secondplace finish in the Miller 400 was his best since the crash - a sign that he's still capable of winning more than popularity contests in NASCAR.
"This crew has worked hard, and to come back here and lead and run like we did today ... a year ago I was watching this on TV," said Elliott, of Dawsonville, Ga.
The race last June at Michigan was one of seven that Elliott missed because of a broken femur - the largest bone in the body - suffered in the Talladega crash. Elliott, the rangy, country-talkin' 41-year-old, hobbled gingerly around the garage on crutches and returned sooner than anyone expected.
The results took longer. Elliott, still in pain behind the wheel of his No. 94 Ford, ended up 30th in the point standings last season. It was only the second time out of the top 10 since 1983.
Elliott's appeal has never been in question. After the tumultuous '96 season, NASCAR fans voted him most popular driver for an unprecedented 11th time.
But the 1988 Winston Cup champion is winless in 77 straight races dating to the September 1994 Southern 500 at Darlington. Starting 26th at Michigan, he was the track's winningest active driver with seven victories - although six of them came in an eight-race span from 1984-87.
After battling with the leaders at Daytona, Charlotte and now Michigan, it seems only a matter of time before victory lane holds a party with "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" as the guest of honor.
"I feel that's a fact, just from the standpoint of the way we've been running from the first of the year," said Elliott, who is 10th in points and has six top-10 finishes. "We ran so well at Daytona. We've run well everywhere we've been. We've just had some bad luck."
Elliott was poised for a run at a third Daytona 500 victory when Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven blew past for a 1-2-3 sweep. Elliott finished fourth - disappointing but perhaps a signal that his injury and bad luck were behind him.
At Michigan on Sunday, Elliott was bold and fast and steady, all the things that made him one of Winston Cup's most successful drivers.
In the end, he settled for second. Ernie Irvan, another driver recovering from serious injury, won in his third race at Michigan since a crash at the track nearly claimed his life three years ago.
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