NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 NASCAR Driver Review: Bill Elliott

Bill Elliott

2008 Ride: No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford
2008 Primary Sponsors: Motorcraft, Little Debbie, U.S. Air Force
2008 Owner: Glen Wood
2008 Crew Chiefs: Gene Nead (Feb. – March), Mike Smith (March – July), David Hyder (Aug. – Nov.)
2008 Stats: 20 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 39th in points

High Point: Bill Elliott achieved two high points in 2008. The first was his 16th-place finish in the October Martinsville race. Despite finishing a lap down, a top 20 during the Chase is hardly a bad achievement for a part-time driver on a struggling single-car team. Making Elliott’s finish even more impressive was the fact that he started 43rd, shotgun on the field at a track that’s incredibly difficult to pass on.

The Dawsonville, Ga. driver followed up that performance with a 12th-place finish at Homestead a few weeks later. The No. 21’s struggles in recent years had been amplified on tracks where aerodynamics play a large role, and Homestead certainly fit that bill. However, Elliott started 15th, kept his nose clean (which is a trademark for the veteran, champion driver) and let his team play the fuel-mileage game perfectly down the stretch. A top 15, season-best finish in the final race of 2008 was the perfect way to top off a frustrating year.

Low Point: Since he is the 1988 Cup champion, Elliott has the benefit of the use of six championship provisionals to guarantee him a spot in races – if he is the most recent champion in need of one. However, since 1999 Cup titleholder Dale Jarrett ran the first five races of 2008 and was driving for a team outside the Top 35, Elliott had a diminished chance of making the field each week.

Those circumstances, combined with ill-handling racecars, caused Elliott to miss two of the first four races of 2008. But what made things worse is the tracks he DNQ’ed at were places he’d been highly successful throughout his career. For the first time since the 1970s, Elliott attempted but missed the Daytona 500, a race he won in both 1985 and ’87. He also missed the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, his home track where he’s taken the checkered flag five times.

Later in the year, Elliott and the No. 21 team also failed to make the field for the sport’s second biggest race – the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Elliott won that race in 2002, but was unable to coax enough speed out of his Ford to make it in.

In the races he did run, Elliott also experienced plenty of devastating lows. In particular, there was a frustrating stretch of eight races (between the spring race at Martinsville and Chicagoland in July) where he failed to finish better than 31st.

Summary: There was not much for Elliott or his struggling No. 21 Wood Brothers team to gloat about in 2008. The team fell outside the Top 35 in points last season and could never break the threshold this season, meaning they missed several races and fell even further behind the learning curve in adjusting to the CoT.

As a result, Elliott’s presence on the track was fairly inconspicuous. He often started near the back of the field and hovered near his starting position until the checkered flag. His partnership with the Wood Brothers, which began in mid-2007, was supposed to lift the team out of its recent slump. Instead, the No. 21 has sunk to new lows and fallen further behind the bigger multi-car organizations.

However, this descent really cannot be fully blamed on Elliott, despite the fact that the semi-retired driver is 53 years old – driving for a single-car team, the Woods appear to be behind the curve in both equipment and engineering compared to others like Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs.

After Elliott missed the Daytona 500 – the first time in over 40 years the Wood Brothers Ford missed the field – he began the year in Fontana with a 26th-place finish. His next eight races garnered results outside the top 30, causing the team to fall well off the pace of a locked-in qualifying spot for the second straight year.

During that stretch, crew chief Gene Nead also left the team, and was replaced on an interim basis by team engineer Mike Smith. In August, David Hyder, who had been with the No. 21 in 2006, joined the organization in wake of BAM Racing’s closure. Hyder’s return seemed to help the team and Elliott’s performance over the last three months of the year.

Besides the aforementioned 12th at Homestead and 16th at Martinsville, a 20th at Pocono were the team’s only top-20 finishes with Elliott behind the wheel (Marcos Ambrose scored a third at Infineon in June). Elliott also led one lap in the August Pocono race, but that was his only time at the head of the pack all year. In fact, his only lead-lap finishes were at both Pocono races and at Homestead, a sign of how uncompetitive this once legendary organization has become.

A seventh-place start in the Kansas race and a fifth-place start at Bristol in August were the team’s only qualifying highlights.

Team Ranking: The Wood Brothers is a single-car team, so the No. 21 is the best car in the stable. There were several drivers that rotated in the cockpit of the No. 21 this year, and Elliott’s rank among them is better to quantify. Considering Elliott ran the most races of any driver for the team, has been the team’s main driver the past two seasons (and will be next year), is the team’s most decorated driver, and scored a surprising 12th-place finish at Homestead, he should be ranked number one.

Ambrose ran several races for the team this year and scored a top five at Watkins Glen, but he is moving on and does not outrank Elliott in the No. 21 Ford.

Off-Track News: Rumors of mergers and shutdowns pervaded the NASCAR news this season, and the Wood Brothers were not left out of the discussions. Since the team is a single-car operation, there were talks of potential mergers with Robby Gordon Motorsports, Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing and maybe others that never made the news. So far, the Wood Brothers remain an independent team with limited financial support.

Sponsorship news has been bleak for the Wood Brothers, especially with the economy in its current state. Little Debbie, who had been with the team since 2006, left following the season to join Ambrose with the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota. The U.S. Air Force is also departing to join Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Reed Sorenson’s No. 10 Dodge next season, ending a several-year tenure on the No. 21. That leaves Motorcraft as the only primary sponsor remaining with the team.

Meanwhile, Elliott was rumored to be retiring for good, but left his options open until near the end of the season. Obviously discouraged by his team’s performance and getting tired of the grind of even a part-time schedule, Elliott chose not to commit to anything until he was absolutely sure he was going to get to do what he wanted.

2009 Outlook: After choosing to keep driving, Elliott and the team will push back to a limited schedule, running 12 races in 2009 on 1.5-mile tracks only. This is actually nothing new for the Wood Brothers, who used to run partial schedules successfully in the 1960s and 1970s with David Pearson. The part-time model has not been a successful one for teams in the last few years, though.

Feb. 15, Daytona 500; March 1, Las Vegas; March 8, Atlanta; April 5, Texas; May 16, All-Star Race; May 24, Charlotte; July 11, Chicagoland; Sept. 6, Atlanta; Oct. 4, Kansas; Oct. 17, Charlotte; Nov. 8, Texas; Nov. 22, Homestead is the schedule that Elliott will run.

Quote of the Year: “At this point in time, I don’t know. I think I’m just going to look at the next few races and see if I can help ’em out maybe, but it would just be a short-team deal. A few and that’s it. I think right now they’re trying to sell stuff, and they don’t really have a whole lot else going on. If we can turn around and get something going here – and keep it going – that’s one thing.

“If it’s gonna go and turn around and change directions on you, then no, I don’t want to do this anymore. We’ve been through some changes [at Wood Brothers Racing] and now we’ve kind of turned the corner a little bit. But there again, unless they can put several deals together, it’s gonna be tough on them boys anyway. You never can predict the future.”

“As far as me ever runnin’ a full-time deal again? No, never. Would I run a couple first off? Yeah, maybe. But that would be it. And if they could find something to fill the void before the first of next year, I wouldn’t even do that. What I’m saying, I guess, is let’s get through the next few races – and then what they find out and what they come up with will be the determining factor.” – Bill Elliott, answering a question in November about whether or not he will retire or what his 2009 schedule is going to be

2006 Frontstretch Grade: C-
2007 Grade: C-
2008 Grade: C-

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