HAMPTON, Ga. - Bill Elliott is ranked 11th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings, too far back to make up any significant ground in the final four races of the season.
With nothing else to lose, the veteran of 27 racing seasons will adopt a new strategy for Sunday's NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He is willing to make changes - in the construction of his engine, setup of his car and the way he drives - because the only thing that matters in the final month is winning.
"I think right now we try to gamble a little bit," Elliott said. "I talked to (car owner) Ray (Evernham), and I think we're willing to turn the wick up on some stuff. Right now, we don't have anything to lose. Right now we just need to run good and force some things out and make it better for next year."
Elliott rarely has been pushed into such predicaments, but when he has been forced into an aggressive mode, he's been unstoppable.
Of Elliott's 60 careers victories, none was more defining than the 1985 Winston 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. A broken axle put him nearly two full laps - more than five miles - behind race leader Cale Yarborough. Once the problem was fixed, he returned to the 2.66-mile raceway less than 200 yards away from going two laps down.
Without the benefit of cautions that could help him erase huge chunks of the deficit, Elliott adopted the nothing-to-lose attitude. He eventually caught Yarborough and passed him in one of the most dominating efforts in the sport's history.
"Right now we've got to go as hard as we can go and do the best we can here in the next several races and see if we can make something happen or better things for next year," he said.
Elliott has two victories this year, including a stirring win at the Brickyard 400. He heads to Atlanta's 1.54-mile racetrack with five career wins in official races at his hometown track. He lives 90 minutes away in Blairsville, Ga.
His last win at Atlanta was the 1992 season finale - a race many historians regard as the most significant race in the sport's 53-year history. Four drivers went into that race with a realistic chance of winning the title, including Elliott. He won the race, but Alan Kulwicki won the title by just 10 points. The race also marked the final start for racing legend Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon.
A losing streak for Elliott started two years later. It spanned more than seven years and had Elliott considering retirement. A win a year ago at Homestead, Fla., provided a spark that carried over into the current season. Victories at Pocono, Pa., and Indianapolis now have Elliott thinking about more long-term goals.
"I'm not getting any younger, but I look at it from the standpoint of how well I feel from year to year," he said. "I don't want to become a negative to this race team."
The end of the racing season usually creates a variety of strategies. Drivers still in contention for the championship will be as concerned with not making mistakes as they are with running up front. Drivers such as Elliott will be trying new things to get a running start for the 2003 campaign.
A year ago, for example, the winners of the last four races were Joe Nemechek, Elliott, Bobby Labonte and Robby Gordon. None of those four was among the top five in the final standings.
Elliott said he wants to drive next year. He hasn't thought about anything beyond that, although he said he wants enough time after retiring to appreciate what he's accomplished.
"I would treat it like there's no tomorrow," Elliott said. "In this sport, you never know what's going to happen. Just like Alan (Kulwicki), unfortunately he didn't live very long after winning his (championship). There you have (Dale) Earnhardt with all the success he had, and he never was able to enjoy it. You better live and take care of it."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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