In team sports the players are constantly changing. You don't so many roots for the individual people on your favorite team so much as you root for the logo on their helmet or across their chest. NASCAR is different. Your favorite driver is your favorite driver. You pull for an individual, for a person, and that is what makes it so different. On Sunday afternoons you live and die with that man and what he does on the racetrack. When he runs good, your day is good, when he runs bad, your day not as nice, and when he wins, well that can make your whole week, sometimes your whole month good.
More than my loyalty to the Braves, Georgia Tech, the Falcons or even Social Circle is my loyalty to my favorite driver of all time, Bill Elliott. I started liking him because my parents did, and what wasn't to like? He's a local guy, and as you can tell, I pull for any and everything from the state of Georgia. But he's a good person, down to earth, humble, and one helluva racecar driver. From being 4 years old and waiting in line at the Bill Elliott museum, to having to stop by that museum anytime I was even in the vicinity (even if I knew I was going to see the exact same thing I saw the last time I was there) Bill Elliott was my guy. It was his driving a red car that made my favorite color red. I've got 20 of his 1/64 scale die cast cars, at least 10 posters, and at least 20 more smaller pictures and post cards. I've got at least 15 autographs of his, and display 6 1/24 scale models that Dad has built over the course of his career. From the 1985 Coors Thunderbird that dominated the sport, to the 1988 championship car, to the 1992 Budweiser outfit with Junior Johnson, up through his days with McDonald's, to Ray Evernham, to his part time deal in the 91 car, cars, and race tapes and newspapers and posters and cards document it all throughout my apartment. I don't have as much memorabilia representing all of the NFL, including my Falcons stuff, as I do items that represent Bill Elliott.
"Awesome Bill", "Million Dollar Bill", "The Awesome One", "Wild Bill", to family coined nicknames "Backmarker Bill, 'Bris on the Course", to the one that stuck "Dono", whatever he's called was the reason I watched NASCAR. When attending a race my focus wasn't necessarily on the front of the field and the leaders, it was on where the 9, or 11, or 94 car, or even 91 was running. I've adopted Kasey Kahne as my new favorite, obviously, since he inherited Elliott's ride in Ray Evernham's Dodge (I'm also going to be a Reed Sorrenson fan as he also is from Georgia), but he doesn't compare to Elliott. I attended the Brickyard 400 last year, and Kahne was a contender much of the afternoon, and posed a serious threat to win the race in the event's waning laps. Even while Kahne was contending for the win, my eyes wandered to mid pack to find the Stanley Tools Dodge, to keep my eye on Elliott, to see where he was running. I was watching with more intensity his battle for 23rd than I was Kasey Kahne's for first. Maybe one day Kahne or Sorrenson will attract that same loyalty and support from me, but for now, no way. As long as there is a chance Bill Elliott will get in a racecar, he is THE man in my eyes.
I was only 4, but can remember my first race was at Darlington, Labor Day of 1988 and watching Elliott outrun Rusty Wallace to win. Later that year I was in attendance at Atlanta in November to see him win the Winston Cup championship. I only saw him win once more, Atlanta in 1992, but saw many a race he could've won, and saw just as many he had no shot at. But in each race my eyes were glued to that red car carrying my hero.
I had on a headset at school, and was actually late to class one Thursday in February of 2000. Why? I was listening to the Twin 125 Mile Qualifier, which Elliott won. Even though it didn't really count, it was great. He hadn't won anything since 1994, and that win made the rest of my day that much easier. My hatred from Jeff Gordon stems from one year, 1997. Elliott had the best car in the Daytona 500, but Gordon first helped assist Earnhardt into the wall to take out half the contenders, and then went by Elliott in the grass to win. At Charlotte that year, Elliott again had the best car, but the race was stopped 100 miles short due to "lateness", and Gordon was crowned winner of the Coke 600. Then at Darlington, with the Winston Million on the line, and Elliott attempting to remain the only driver to have won it, Elliott dominated. Only to see the weather conditions change and fade to fourth as Gordon won the race, and the Million.
When Elliott joined Ray Evernham beginning with the 2001 season I knew a win was left, at least one. So many, including The Sporting News Lee Spencer proclaimed Elliott to be washed up, and Evernham out of his mind for hiring him. In defense of my hero I emailed her, to let her know she was wrong. Upon his winning the pole at Daytona she emailed be back to admit she was wrong. Elliott winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2001 only proved what I already knew. He wasn't done yet; he had some good racing left in him. It took until the last race of that year, but Elliott scored his first win in 7 years. The relationship I had with my parents at this time was rocky, at best, but for a brief moment, in celebrating the long overdue victory by Bill Elliott we could be a happy family again. Elliott's win in the 2002 Brickyard 400 nearly made me cry, just as did the blown tire in the 2003 Homestead race on the last lap that cost him victory number 45, and may have prompted his retirement from full time racing.
Elliott still runs part time, and runs when and where he so chooses, and when he's got sponsorship. Unfortunately running a limited schedule with a part time team really prevents him from being competitive. However, that doesn't stop me from having to know every second of every lap just where he is on that track. As mentioned, as long as there is a chance of Elliott climbing into a racecar, he will be my guy.
Well he's climbing into a racecar this February. A two-time winner of the sport's biggest prize, the Daytona 500, Elliott is returning to Daytona for the first time since 2002. Driving the no. 36 Chevrolet by MBII Motorsports, Elliott will run what will be his last Daytona 500. It's the sport's biggest race, and Elliott will be likely be saying a final goodbye to the track this February. Usually goodbyes are sad, and in terms of NASCAR drivers often times a driver running around uncompetitively just because he can't let go. Whatever the case, I'm going to be in Daytona to witness in person my hero make his last laps in the greatest sporting event of them all. I'm going to see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and smell it with my own nose. I'm going to know where that 36 car is every second of that race, without having to rely on TV to show him if he's not up front.
Now about that not being up front bit. Elliott's goodbye to Daytona may very well differ from many prominent athletes' goodbyes. In testing this past week at the track Elliott was among the fastest cars at The Beach, both in qualifying and race trim. Elliott's face is just one big grin, as he's brimming with confidence. He truly believes he can go out with a win in the Daytona 500. He believes, and I, I never stop believing. If he so much as leads one lap down there, when he comes off turn two with that lead, Dad and I both may cry. And if the unimaginable happens, if he wins that race, with me there, to see it myself, well, that would truly be imaginable. I cannot even begin to guess what I'll feel like, or the excitement that will go through me, or the emotion. It will be a joy, a happiness, and emotion filled excitement that has never been reached before, and will never be reached again. Here's to seeing Bill being "Awesome" again.