HAMPTON, Ga. - Bill Elliott was raised to believe it's better to push a Ford than drive a Chevrolet. Since he was old enough to stir red clay rooster tails of dust in the North Georgia mountains, Elliott has been loyal to Ford's blue oval on and off the racetrack.
"When daddy had his car dealership," Elliott has often said, "he wouldn't even take a Chevy on trade. He was a Ford man; I've been a Ford man."
As soon as Sunday's stock car season finale is over Sunday, Elliott's loyalty will shift to a greater cause - his racing career.
The new Dodge Intrepid R/T, scheduled to debut at the Bud Shootout all-star race next Feb. 11, not only offers Elliott a chance to be that manufacture's front man, it affords him the chance to revive a career that has dropped far from the express lane.
The pending offseason will bring a whirlwind of change for the man once revered as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville." After the checkered flag waves for the NAPA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, he will sell the family-owned race team, including a fleet of Ford Taurus race cars that haven't seen Victory Lane since 1994. From there, he will retreat to his home near Dawsonville, Ga., to start a midlife crisis like few others.
"Instead of worry about should I hire this guy, should I hire that guy, I can worry about driving the car," Elliott said. "I have a different set of responsibilities, some different kinds of pressure. I don't have to run a race team anymore. All I have to do is drive."
That means getting behind the wheel of a new car that has been in development for nearly 18 months. Ray Evernham, the crew chief behind Jeff Gordon's startling success, has been responsible for bringing Dodge back to the races for the first time since 1982. Evernham's attention to detail, coupled with the chance to get a fresh start at age 45 was enough to convince Elliott to make the switch.
"He brings a level of experience and winning from the driver's side of things that not too many people in racing have," Evernham said. "He's an excellent chassis setup guy. He's very much into making the car handle, and that's something I'm into as well."
When Elliott came into the Winston Cup Series in 1976, he was more like a star-struck Huckleberry Finn lost in Times Square. He clearly was uncomfortable with all the trappings of the sport - sponsor commitments, the media and public adulation. Even now, 25 years into a career that's included a Winston Cup Championship in 1988, 40 career victories, 49 pole positions and more than $23.5 million in earnings, he still barely manages those outside influences.
"All I ever wanted to do was work on my car," he said. "Who knew it would grow into something like this."
The Dodge deal will thrust Elliott back into the sport's consciousness. Although nine other drivers will be in a Dodge next season, Elliott clearly is the front man for the effort.
"I've made a lot of decisions in my career, but this one has definitely been the hardest," Elliott said. "It's just time to move onto something new. I couldn't give up the opportunity to drive a Dodge and rejuvenate this program and my career."
Elliott's last win came at the 1994 Southern 500. Since then, he's only had 13 top-10 finishes in 192 starts. He suffered a fractured thigh in a crash at Talladega in 1996. Then he broke his knee cap last August after tripping over a garden hose in his garage. The accident at home seemed to mirror his recent luck at the racetrack.
He came into the season knowing his sponsor, McDonald's, was moving its financial support to another team. Undaunted, he opened the campaign with a third-place finish at the Daytona 500, then he enjoyed a fourth-place finish in the season's third race at Las Vegas. A week later, he officially joined the Dodge effort for 2001. Since then, however, his momentum has been stuck in reverse.
He's 20th in the current point standings and fading, and he's only had one top-20 finish in his last five races.
"I'll be glad to get it over with," Elliott said. "Every season seems to get longer and longer. I'm looking forward to starting over again next year."
Elliott, whose first race was in 1976 at Atlanta aboard a car sponsored by his father's Ford dealership, said Sunday's race will be sentimental for a lot of reasons, but none more important than his desire to win again.
"It's going to be kind of emotional," he said. "Everything has always been Ford. But sometimes change is good."