DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Bill Elliott is outside the Sprint Cup garage on Friday, waiting with crewmen for the gate to open at 9 a.m. A few other drivers are there, but none that you probably recognize by name and none with close to the credentials of the 56-year-old Dawsonville, Ga., native.
“I”m old school,” Elliott says.
While many of his peers still are asleep in their opulent motorcoaches on the other side of the fence, the 1988 Sprint Cup champion is under the hood of the No. 97 Toyota he hopes to race in Sunday”s Daytona 500.
Short of buying a car off the showroom floor and hauling it to the track with a pickup truck, this is as close to old-school NASCAR as you”ll get these days. Elliott will get more grease on his hands prepping for Thursday”s qualifying race than most drivers will all season.
The two-time 500 champion and 16-time most popular NASCAR driver award winner doesn”t know the names of the makeshift crew around him. He”s not even sure who his crew chief is.
“I think it”s that guy on the left,” Elliott says.
It doesn”t matter. Elliott treats them with the same respect he would as if they were Chad Knaus and the No. 48 crew for five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
“He”s not a prima donna,” says Scott Eggleston, the guy on the left who is Elliott”s crew chief for the team owned by Joe Nemechek. “He”s just a regular guy.”
Elliott always has been. He always will be.
He”s doing many of the same things now he did at the beginning of his racing career, only most of his effort is focused on the career of 16-year-old son Chase, a promising developmental driver for Hendrick Motorsports.
When he”s not off having fun for himself like he is here, Elliott is back at his Dawsonville shop tuning engines, balancing the books, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets … whatever it takes to give his son a chance to compete on the level he once excelled.
It”s almost like time has stood still from the early 1970s, when Elliott worked with brothers Ernie and Dan in the speed shop created by his father.
“Pretty much,” says Elliott, who on Thursday will compete with six drivers for the four spots left in the 500 field. “The funny thing is, I do more now than I did then. Even when I was racing full-time it seemed like I had more time.”
Elliott still has that working man”s mentality that made drivers like himself and Dale Earnhardtsuch an icon with fans. He still has that mentality of being able to go from bailing hay on the tractor to the spotlight of the biggest race of the year, and that”s an image many fans miss.
The sport misses it, too.
“He”s just a normal guy and a helluva race car driver,” driver Jeff Burton says. “We need people like Bill to be in the garage. He brings a tremendous amount of wisdom and insight into stuff that”s happened in the past that will help shape the future.”
Chase Elliott stares out the back of the hauler as his dad surveys seemingly every nut and bolt on the navy blue No. 97.
“You won”t find him sitting in one place very long,” Chase says. “He”s got to be doing something.”
More than driving ability or anything else, Chase hopes he inherited that work ethic that appears to be in the DNA of all the Elliotts. He wasn”t around to see his dad at the top of his career, when he had a string of eight years (1983-90) of finishing no worse than sixth in points. He can only appreciate that on film.
But he gets a firsthand look of the work ethic every day.
“I look back early in my career and that”s the only thing that kept me going and got me to where I was,” Bill Elliott says.
Eggleston and the No. 97 crew got a glimpse of that work ethic only a few minutes after meeting Elliott.
“He came in and we had to adjust his seat,” Eggleston says. “The other drivers would have said just lengthen my belts and when I come back we”ll see how it is. Bill said, “My seat belt is a little short. Just show me where the wrenches are.”
“From other drivers I”ve had, he”s just a refreshing break.”
Elliott”s day typically begins with a 5:30 a.m. workout before heading to the race shop. You may find him driving the truck that pulls his son”s late model car, flying team members to a track in his airplane or simply cutting grass.
He”s retired as his son”s spotter, realizing his emotions at times had him on the verge of being a soccer dad.
“I didn”t want to be that,” Elliott says.
Elliott didn”t think he would be in Daytona this year until Nemechek twisted his arm into it five days before the first practice. Everything since has been a blur, from getting drug tested to being fitted for a new seat to making travel plans.
But Elliott is not here for the money. If it were money that drove him, he would have quit long ago. He”s simply here for the joy of racing.
“I figured I didn”t have anything to lose,” Elliott says.
A year ago, Elliott drove to a 12th-place finish here for Phoenix Racing, which has Kurt Buschbehind the wheel now.
“I didn”t think that was too bad for a 55-year-old,” says Elliott, whose last Cup victory came at Rockingham in 2003.
Not that anybody should have been surprised. Elliott always has been exceptional on restrictor-plate tracks. He set the record for the fastest recorded speed in a stock car (212.809 mph) at Talladega Superspeedway.
He”s won four times at Daytona, including the 1985 and “87 500. From 1985-87 he won four poles in five Daytona races, and was second in the other.
But Elliott didn”t come to Daytona thinking he has a chance to win again. His goal is to finish with the car in one piece and make Nemechek as much money as possible so the organization can continue racing.
“Winning, it”s not impossible,” Elliott says. “But it”s such a long shot.”
You have to remember, Elliott hasn”t driven a stock car since April. He hasn”t spent countless hours in the two-car draft that likely will be prevalent over the final laps.
“You”re a day behind in a sport where you need to be a day ahead,” Elliott says.
Still a fan favorite
A group of gray-haired men interrupt Elliott”s walk to pit road for Sunday”s qualifying attempt. Elliott stops, signs the back of one man”s shirt, smiles and moves on.
He”s still popular, not only among fans, but drivers.
“Over the years, I”ve just gained so much more respect for him, watching how he”s raced the last eight or 10 years,” four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon says. “He”s a guy that works on his own stuff. I love how he approaches his own son”s racing, and he”s still a very talented driver.
“I only wish I had that kind of attitude and drive in me when I get to that age.”
Say what you want about drivers hanging on too long, Elliott at Daytona is good for the sport. He can”t tell you the first thing about fuel injection that is making its debut in the Sprint Cup Series this season. He can”t tell you what life is like in the motorcoach lot, because he sold his many years ago and commutes to the track each day from a friend”s house on the beach.
But Elliott is a reminder of all that was great about the sport and a time when many didn”t think they had it so great.
“I wish I could keep him around all the time,” Eggleston says. “There”s a difference between people that drive and people that can drive. There”s 43 cars here, but only about 12 real drivers. He”s one of them.”
Elliott has spent enough time talking now. It”s time for the future Hall of Famer to get back to working on what could be his last attempt to make the 500.
“If you need anything, holler,” he says with a smile and a wave. “We”re kind of low key at this end.”
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.