In honor of Bill Elliott’s birthday yesterday, and along with his son Chase’s attempt to put the Elliotts with the Labontes, Pettys, Jarretts and Earnhardts as the only families to have multiple winners of a NASCAR national series championship, I thought it was a good time to remember the greatest moments of the elder Elliott’s career as we look forward to the second generation carrying on the proud Elliott name. So here are the twenty greatest moments from the 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee and 16 time voted most popular driver, Bill Elliott.
20) 2000 Gatorade Twin 125 Mile Qualifier – Even if unofficial, considering that he hadn’t won a race of any kind since 1994, the victory at Daytona gave a glimpse of hope that foreshadowed things to come in the next chapter of his career. It would be the first and only time Elliott would drive his number 94 McDonald’s car into victory lane.
19) 1988 Pepsi 400 – Elliott started 38th at Daytona and nearly lost a lap. It didn’t matter, this was a championship caliber team, and they would beat Florida native Rick Wilson across the line by inches to take the victory.
18) 2003 Pop Secret 400 – It was the final Winston Cup season as Nextel was set to take over the title sponsorship that Winston had held for so long. Matt Kenseth, who began his career five years earlier subbing for Elliott at Dover in 1998, was clinching the championship. And it was the final race to be run at Rockingham, the very track Elliott made his own first career start at back in 1976. Everything seemed to come full circle as Elliott would win what would be his final race. And he did it in style. Starting 43rd because of an engine change, Elliott charged through the field and out dueled some guy named Jimmie Johnson for the win.
17) 1988 Valleydale Meats 500 – The victory in the spring of 1988 at Bristol not only was the first victory of his career on a short track, it served notice that the team had cleaned up their biggest weakness from previous years and was a legitimate championship contender
16) 1991 Pepsi 400 – The victory would be his fourth, and final, win at Daytona, but more importantly, it would be his final victory in the number 9 Fords prepared in the family shop in Dawsonville, as he would leave for Junior Johnson’s famous number 11 team in Ingles Hollow, North Carolina the following season.
15) 1992 Hooters 500 – It is considered perhaps the most pivotal turning point in the sports history as it was Richard Petty’s last race, Jeff Gordon’s first, six drivers had a chance at the championship, and for two of them, tragedy awaited within the next eight months. As a result, being the winner of that race carries a lot of weight. Unfortunately for Elliott, it’s a hollow weight. The difference of one lap led at Atlanta that afternoon cost him a second championship as Alan Kulwicki, by virtue of leading one lap more than Elliott, took home the crown.
14) 1992 TranSouth 500 – The win at Darlington tied a modern-day record that still stands by becoming the fourth straight win for Elliott. It came in just the fifth race of the season, establishing the Bill Elliott/Junior Johnson/Tim Brewer combination as a championship contender right out of the box. In addition, it was the 100th time that Junior Johnson’s no. 11 had gone to victory lane.
13) 1994 Southern 500 – 1993 had been the first time since 1982, the last time Elliott didn’t run the full season, that Elliott went through a season without finding victory lane. With it being established that Elliott would return to Dawsonville in 1995 to form own his own team, Elliott snapped the long losing streak. In doing so, he won his third Southern 500, considered by most the second biggest race on the schedule, and also won the last of the 102 wins amassed by Junior Johnson’s famed 11 car. For Elliott, his three Southern 500 victories had come by way of out dueling Cale Yarborough, Rusty Wallace and now, Dale Earnhardt, no small feat at “The Track too Tough to Tame”.
12) 1987 Daytona 500 – The second Daytona 500 victory of his career put him in rare company with other multi time winners of “The Great American Race” and firmly established his place among racing royalty
11) 1987 The Winston – It was The Pass in the Grass, it put the all-star race on the map, and helped cement the legacy of Dale Earnhardt, even if Elliott came out on the losing end of it. It also marked the only time the very mild-mannered Elliott used his racecar for retaliation, especially during a cool down lap.
10) 1986 The Winston
In 1986 NASCAR and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company decided to try out the idea of rotating the sports All Star race. Bill Elliott may be the reason it returned to Charlotte in 1987 and never left. As mentioned above, the 1987 Winston cemented the events place in the sport at Charlotte, but it may have been the thoroughly dominating win by Elliott at Atlanta in the 1986 edition that brought the event back to the hub of NASCAR. 1986 wasn’t a particularly memorable year for Elliott. Rule changes aimed at slowing his Ford down, as well as the let down factor from the 1985 season all contributed to what was a down, by his new standards, year. But despite that, he earned his lone victory in the sports all-star race, and did so at his home track.
Clearly this list would be woefully lacking without the first career win that got the ball rolling in Elliott’s career. It took a fortuitous set of circumstances, including Darrell Waltrip and Tim Richmond tangling while racing for the lead, for Elliott to finally break through after being the bridesmaid eight times already in his young career. The first of Elliott’s 44 career wins came in 1983, his first full season, and the win at Riverside would be the only road course victory of his career. Though, let it be known, Elliott continued to be a very effective racer on the tracks that turned left and right. It would be Elliott’s final race in a Melling sponsored car, as Coors would come on board in 1984, and the rest, the rest they say is history.
From 1995 thru 2000 Bill Elliott was hardly recognizable. His attempt to come back home to Dawsonville and run for his own team turned out to be a case of biting off more than he could chew. Zero wins, and only two top ten finishes in points marked his time in the McDonald’s car. As a result many people thought Ray Evernham was crazy for asking Bill Elliott to come drive for him while starting his new race team that would lead Dodge back into the sport after an absence of more than two decades. Elliott was thought to be washed up, and wouldn’t be able to offer much. All Elliott did was put Dodge on the pole for the Daytona 500, a Daytona 500 that garnered as much attention as any race in the sports history.
Up until this point, Elliott was considered a rising star, but he hadn’t arrived yet. He’d been consistently near the front, having been on the edge of competing for a championship each of the past two seasons. An utterly dominating 1985 Speed Weeks that culminated with a thorough butt whipping of the field in the Daytona 500 signified his arrival. And he of course spent the rest of 1985 making sure people knew he wasn’t going anywhere.
Look at any NASCAR all time qualifying speeds records list and Bill Elliott’s name dominates the list. But it’s the one atop the list that clearly stands out above all the others. 212.809. It’s a number forever etched in NASCAR lore. No official lap has been clocked faster, and thanks to restrictor plates, none ever will. Holding the record for the fastest lap turned in a stock car puts you in elite company, and by elite company, company that is void of all other company. It makes you alone as the fastest man in NASCAR history.
There are certain achievements a complete career in NASCAR must have, and since the inaugural running in 1994 the Brickyard 400 has become one of those jewels needed to fill out ones crown. The list of winners is a who’s who of modern-day NASCAR royalty. Even during his lean years of the late 90s, Elliott ran well and contended at Indy. You could tell he wanted this one. In 2002, in a throwback battle with Rusty Wallace reminiscent of the late 80s, Elliott capped off a dominating performance with a victory to claim the biggest prize missing from his resume. Having been considered washed up and no longer able to compete at the highest level less than two years ago, taking home one of the biggest prizes in the sport was sweet redemption. And perhaps making it more special, unlike his championship, Winston Million, and Daytona 500s, this one was celebrated with son Chase.
As mentioned, by the conclusion of the 2000 season Elliott had a losing streak that stretched nearly five and a half seasons. Despite the season opening pole at Daytona, Elliott struggled for a good portion of 2001 with his new team, but at the final race of the year, everything clicked. Elliott beat his rookie teammate Casey Atwood for the pole, and then in the waning laps used his experience and veteran savvy to slip past his younger teammate and put an end to a very, very long, and very, very dry, spell of futility. For those of who kept buying the McDonald’s gear, and who kept monitoring from about 16th thru 24th place every week out of loyalty for their driver, their hero, it was validation that their faith wasn’t misplaced. It was relief. It was reward. It was emotional. I can still get choked up watching it today. But mostly, it was awesome.
It’s the crowning achievement in NASCAR, being the champion at the peak level, the highest level of motorsports in America. After seeing a championship fizzle away in 1985, Elliott made sure there would be no repeat in 1988. To make things even better, he secured the championship at his home track in Atlanta. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s the first pro championship won by a team in Georgia, and still to this day, it’s the truest Georgia championship won in this state. And will remain that way forever.
I’m going to catch flack from people for putting this just at two, but I have my reasons. Regardless, Bill Elliott went from NASCAR driver to legend at Darlington that Labor Day weekend. It’s when he went from Bill, to “Million Dollar Bill”. But it wasn’t just what Elliott did for himself that made this moment so big, it’s the way he elevated an entire sport. Few people are truly transcendent in sports, but when Elliott won the Winston Million and became the first NASCAR driver to ever make the cover of Sports Illustrated, he joined that elite fraternity.
I know, the championship or the Winston Million belongs here to many, but not me. If the Southern 500 is when he became “Million Dollar Bill”, then that spring day at Talladega was when he became “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”. Never has a racecar been as dominate as Elliott’s Fords at Talladega and Daytona in the mid 80s. To overcome 5 miles, under green, is simply unfathomable. It’s not only easily the most incredible comeback in NASCAR history, but all of motorsports. And while many great comebacks involve an element of collapse, or choking, if you will, by one team, in this case Elliott’s rally had nothing to do with what his opponents couldn’t do and everything to do with what he was able to accomplish. And for that, it has a case to be the greatest comeback in sports history, period.