*Did You Notice?* … How difficult it is for some drivers to hang it up for good? Bill Elliott is the latest example of that, a certain Hall of Famer hanging on nearly a decade after full-time retirement. Back then, it was nearly a Cinderella story for Awesome Bill, the 1988 Cup Series champion who’s best known for capturing the 1985 Winston Million: a reward for capturing three of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events (Daytona, Talladega, Darlington) in the same season. 48 years old when the “R” word first beckoned, he’d won every major event in the sport and came within a lap of winning the 2003 season finale at Homestead before blowing a tire on the final lap. Walking away in his prime, the dream most superstar athletes rarely achieve was firmly within reach.
Except Elliott couldn’t do it. Since then, he’s made 97 Cup starts, some in part-time equipment not up to his skill set and others far after those strengths began declining with age. The results have been abysmal at best (one top-10 finish, scored in 2004) while a driver once known for setting pole position records has failed to qualify seven times. Turning 58 this year, with son Chase set to run a part-time schedule in the Truck Series for Hendrick Motorsports it finally appears Bill is _thinking_ about stepping back for good, a natural evolution statistics tell you should have happened long ago. “The way I look at it,” he told Bristol Motor Speedway last week, “If I keep doing [Cup starts], then I’m taking away from somebody else getting in a car so it’s kind of a doubled-edge sword.”
Sounds like an innocent comment, coming from someone widely considered one of the sport’s class acts. But that “fill a ride” mentality he speaks of, one pursued by many these days certainly didn’t stop him for the last eight years. Why hang around so long in the first place? The answer actually comes with Chase, a youngster now set with a ride to the point Elliott no longer has to take up space in a car. HMS can provide the top-notch sponsorship and equipment Bill was hoping to raise for his son; before that, where do you think the money to run Chase’s late model came from? The last nine years of part-time competition may have put a last-chapter asterisk on Elliott’s career, but it certainly didn’t hurt the bank account: nearly $10 million was raised, a comfortable cushion to keep Chase “surviving” until one of the top-tier car owners took notice in genetic talent passing from father to son.
“Wait a second,” you’re probably asking. “Elliott won the Winston Million. Why would he need financial assistance?” Simple: back then, as a working-class driver who believed in speed over million-dollar mansions and jets most of the extra money won was poured directly back into the race team. Also, take a look at the purses these drivers won in the mid-1980s compared to now; Elliott’s best year of the 20th Century, 1985, earned him a shade over $2.3 million. He won $2.1 million for the Wood Brothers in 2007, by comparison, pursuing a part-time schedule in which he never finished better than 11th.
Sure, Elliott had a few good seasons (2001-03) where he was running with a comfy contract from Dodge and Evernham Motorsports, averaging about $4 million per. But after owning his own team, in the mid-1990s and slowly sliding backwards Elliott also entered that situation on financial fumes. It’s the situation not unique to NASCAR, athletes across all sports so consumed in competition they forget to think about the many years after retirement they’ll need to not only survive but provide for their families. Think Joe Nemechek, doing the same for son John Hunter; Terry Labonte, a former Cup champ still active, attempting this year’s Daytona 500 in his mid-50s; and even Ken Schrader, running a limited schedule for a FAS Lane team that simply doesn’t have the speed to effectively compete.
So as Elliott (perhaps) thinks about hanging it up for good, this time I now have a different outlook on those last starts that have left the man looking like a shell of his former self. Who cares about your reputation when building a career for your son? If you could stick around in your sport just a few short years longer, providing the financial security for him to at least get the best shot at succeeding in your same career wouldn’t you, as a father do the same thing? Some will say Elliott tarnished his image in those final years. But as son Chase pursues Victory Lane this season, with Hendrick Motorsports a proud father sitting on pit lane won’t care too much about the naysayers.
He knows that may not have happened without a few extra years of “hanging on.” And with the easy money available these days, with everything from start-and-parking to some spot starts with lower-tier organizations, it’s easy to see why other capable veterans do the same.
*Did You Notice?* … How much time a family connection can buy you? On the flip side of the Elliott story are names we’ve known too long, at times for all the wrong reasons: John Wes Townley. Steve Wallace. Even, potentially a Brian Scott. All of them have spent years toiling at either the Nationwide or Truck Series level, with limited success only to come back year after year while other youngsters lose out on their opportunities.
Take a Landon Cassill, for instance, who left BK Racing prior to this season because the team never fulfilled its financial obligations. To say Cassill has had a stellar career in Cup would be silly; admittedly, with a best finish of 12th in 84 career starts accepting opportunities on the back end of the garage has dropped his stock. But Cassill, just 23 has proven he can get it done when the pieces are in place. Driving for Hendrick/JR Motorsports, in the Nationwide Series back in 2008 he scored five top-10 finishes and was the Rookie of the Year. With the right commitment, the potential appears to be there for development.
Let’s compare that to Wallace, whose family-owned team, led by father and former Cup champ Rusty will return the driver to a limited schedule this season. Given top-tier equipment and sponsorship, Wallace has gone winless in 192 career Nationwide Series races, collecting a total of just six top-5 results. Can you imagine how long that would have kept him in a JR Motorsports ride, by comparison before getting kicked out? It certainly didn’t work for Cassill, whose five top-10s in a _limited schedule_ basically got him the boot. Yet Wallace survives to live another day, as does John Wes Townley whose track record in Nationwide and Trucks is beyond abysmal. In 71 career starts, combined in those series he’s yet to score a top-5 result and his best effort is an eighth place.
I mention these situations because as NASCAR tries to evolve, into the next generation smarter fans recognize the difference between family-bought rides and young drivers with potential to develop. In the past half-dozen years, they’ve seen people named Cassill and O’Quinn and Gale get mostly pushed aside in favor of the drivers that bring bigger wads of cash. Those fans know that in any other major sport, from baseball to hockey pure lack of physical ability would have kept those competitors from coming even close to being on their TV screen. So when they tune in to watch an event, expecting the best of the best in their field and they see a bunch of kids whose money, not talent has provided them an opportunity? There’s a disconnect that keeps them from getting attached to more and more drivers who make up these development series.
These money issues are out there, a side issue to sponsorship concerns. No one told me as a kid that if you work really hard, to pursue your dream you’ll get a one-week opportunity before some rich family takes your spot in the starting lineup and you’ll be back to sweeping floors. Those people won’t be going away, anytime soon, but there needs to be a balance brought back to this sport before too many starting spots are swallowed up.
*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before we take off:
– Tommy Baldwin Racing, in the last two days has announced multiple races’ worth of sponsorship for J.J. Yeley in the No. 36. It’s a much better position than we expected from them after losing the Stewart-Haas affiliation at the end of 2012 (as part of the “keep Danica locked in” campaign.”) It’ll be interesting to see now if the two-car team can compete against the “big boys” with the mechanical expertise of Baldwin combined with the major change of a new car – a rare opportunity these days to level the playing field.
– Remember when JTG Daugherty Racing was looking to start a second car, pairing Bobby Labonte up with a teammate? They better shore up some funding for their first one. I’m hearing from sources that JTG can only buy parts by paying straight cash because their credit line has become so poor, no vendors will accept other forms of payment. Not a promising sign for a program that moved into their own shop last season, trying to make a go of it themselves after Michael Waltrip Racing – their chassis and engine supplier – added a third full-time team with Clint Bowyer.