Originally created 11/20/00

NASCAR racing season near end



HAMPTON, Ga. - After three days of rain and clouds, the sun finally peeked over the second turn wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway late Sunday afternoon. By then, it was too late.

NASCAR pulled the plug on the NAPA 500, the season finale for the 10-month-long NASCAR Winston Cup Series, shortly after its scheduled 12:30 p.m. starting time. The season, already the longest in all of professional team sports, got a day longer when the race was re-scheduled for a 10:15 green flag this morning.

As rain continued to hammer the 1.54-mile raceway south of downtown Atlanta, some used the occasion to finish some other business. The Ford Motor Company presented driver Bill Elliott the Spirit of Ford Award for his 25-year dedication to the company, then driver Robby Gordon ended months of speculation by accepting the full-time ride aboard the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the next five years.

Elliott, who will be the lead driver for Dodge's return to the Winston Cup Series next year, received the highest award from Ford. It caught the Dawsonville, Ga., native by surprise.

"I knew there were going to be a lot of emotions, both good and bad, from my standpoint, and this is what made my decision so hard," Elliott said. "I struggled with this decision (to join Dodge) a lot of nights, trying to decide which way to go and what's the best way to lead, not only Bill Elliott, but the guys on the race team.

"Looking where my career was and trying to continue to be an owner/driver and everything else, it's time to take another crossroad in my career. It's a difficult crossroad because there were a lot of ways to go. But I chose a way, and unfortunately, it kind of turned away from Ford. That's part of the way things happen sometimes in this sport, but I have the utmost respect for the people at Ford Motor Company."

Elliott brought a NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship to Ford in 1988, as well as 40 career victories, 49 pole positions and nearly $23 million in earnings.

"Without the Elliotts, our program, now with more than 20 teams and another manufacturer's championship this year, would not be where it is today," said Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology. "Bill, we know next year you are going to be driving that red car, but we know deep down inside you've got a lot of blue inside of you, and we really appreciate that."

Elliott will be one of 10 drivers expected to drive the new Dodge Intrepid R/T in 2001. Others include: Casey Atwood, Steve Grissom, Kyle Petty, Buckshot Jones, Ward Burton, Dave Blaney, Stacy Compton, Sterling Marlin and a driver yet to be announced by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Elliott's final ride in a Ford will start with a 26th-place spot in the starting grid. He ran 192.427 mph in second-round qualifying - the fifth-fastest overall speed posted in two rounds of time trials - but since he didn't do it in Friday's first-round session, he will be buried deep in the field of 43 cars.

Jeff Gordon had no problems in the first round. His Chevrolet was clocked at 194.274 mph to win the pole position for this morning's race.

Jerry Nadeau, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, qualified second at 193.299 mph.

Dale Jarrett will start third at 193.157 mph, followed by Blaney in fourth at 192.553, Todd Bodine in fifth at 192.253, Mark Martin in sixth at 192.073, Jeremy Mayfield in seventh at 191.987, Dale Earnhardt in eighth at 191.403, newly-crowned Winston Cup Series Champion Bobby Labonte in ninth at 191.278 and Wally Dallenbach in 10th at 191.113.

Like Elliott, Robby Gordon owned his own team on the stock car series this year. Elliott will close his shop after today's race, and with Sunday's announcement, it appears Gordon will do the same.

The former IndyCar driver said he turned down an offer to return to open-wheeled racing next year to take over in the familiar yellow Kodak-sponsored car.

"Obviously I thought I knew how, but our race team didn't get to Victory Lane this year," Gordon said. "Now I have people who know how to get to Victory Lane, and I'm just going to work with them the best I can and put more than an honest effort in it.

"The ownership part for me was a great learning experience. If I didn't do that, then I wouldn't know what it takes, like the simple things. Now I understand what an owner goes through as well, and I think I will be able to build on that and learn from those experiences."

With Elliott and Gordon both dropping from the dual role of owner and driver, the series is left with only two - Dave Marcis and Brett Bodine. Marcis has had trouble making the starting lineup at most races this year, including today's race, and Bodine is thinking about allowing his oldest brother, Geoffrey Bodine, do the driving duties in 2001.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com