BRISTOL -- On a day when Bill Elliott celebrated the silver anniversary of his only win at Bristol Motor Speedway, the driver nicknamed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” remembered the golden moment when he passed Geoff Bodine for the lead with three laps to go.
After being spun out by Bodine with 12 laps to go in the 1988 Valleydale 500, Elliott dove into the pits where his car was equipped with four fresh tires. With the new rubber on, Elliott quickly closed on Bodine for a lap before making a pass at the start-finish line.
“We got together coming into turn three, and he kept coming up the hill, up the hill, up the hill and really didn’t give me any room,” said Elliott after posing for pictures with his famed No. 9 Thunderbird. “All I had in my head was to beat Geoff, whatever it took, if it took turning him around or whatever. But, I really wanted to beat him fair and square.
“I was riding around before the green came out and Dale (Earnhardt) had some problem, but he was still out there running, several laps down. I pulled up beside him and he motioned for me to go and get it done. Dale and I had our days, but he didn’t like Geoff very well.”
Elliott was in town to both celebrate the 25th anniversary of that win (his first ever on a short track), and to help promote the race known for the past 21 years as the Food City 500. Besides the race win, this season also marks the 25th anniversary of Elliott’s 1988 Cup Series championship.
“It doesn’t even seem like 25 days,” Elliott said. “I think back of how hard that era was. You didn’t go buy all this stuff for the race car, you had to make all the stuff. You didn’t have all the different cars for each track like you do today.”
Elliott, 57, who began racing on the Dixie Speedway dirt track at Woodstock, Ga., made his Cup Series debut in the 1976 Carolina 500 at Rockingham, N.C. After eight runner-up finishes over the next seven years, he won his first Cup Series race in 1983 at the old Riverside road course.
Over the next decade, the Dawsonville, Ga. driver won a race every season. Since then he’s gone on to record 828 career starts, which rank him seventh on NASCAR’s all-time list, only one behind Kyle Petty.
However, Elliott ran just two races last season, finishing 37th at both Talladega and Daytona. More focused now on son Chase’s career, he has no plans to return to the driver’s seat unless it’s an offer he can’t refuse.
It’s given him time to reflect and appreciate all he’s accomplished. While Elliott had just the one win at Bristol, he was incredibly consistent at the high-banked track, running at the finish of 39 of 44 races.
“I drove Roger Hamby’s car in the late 70’s and I always enjoyed this place,” Elliott said. “Anytime when you said, Martinsville or Bristol, you wanted to go there because of the way the community embraced you. So many people wanted to be a part of this event.
“You have your ups and downs racing, and racing 500 laps at this place takes it toll on you. All things said, I still love this place.”
Elliott explained back in the day that his team put more emphasis on the superspeedways and that’s why he struggled some at the short tracks and flourished at the bigger tracks, evident by his record as a two-time Daytona 500 winner, a three-time Southern 500 winner and the winner of the 2002 Brickyard 400.
He won 25 races over a four-year stretch in the 1980’s, including 1985 when he led the series with 11 wins and 11 poles, all on superspeedways. After winning a special million dollar bonus from series sponsor Winston and landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he lost the championship when Darrell Waltrip made a late charge.
In 1987, Elliott turned the fastest official lap in NASCAR history, qualifying 212.809 mph for the Winston 500 at Talladega. The race is famous for Bobby Allison’s crash on the frontstretch which led to NASCAR’s use of speed-reducing restrictor-plates.
A season later in 1988, Elliott finally realized his dream of a Cup Series championship.
“We were sometimes the victims of our own demise,” Elliott said. “I look back at all the mistakes we made in ‘85. If we would have been better prepared and had more guys .... In ‘85, there were 12 of us total in the engine shop and the chassis shop. It was working us to death at that time.”
Four years later, Elliott left the Harry Melling-owned team which operated out of his family’s race shop at Dawsonville, Ga. and went to drive for the legendary Junior Johnson. Elliott finished second to Alan Kulwicki in the 1992 point standings, one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.
In more recent years, Elliott has worked in driver development, notable for his mentoring of John King, defending champion of the NASCAR Truck Series race at Daytona.
Elliott’s enduring legacy may be his relationship with the fans. He still holds the all-time record of 16 times being voted Most Popular Driver by the NASCAR fans.
“A lot of things happened at the right time,” Elliott said. “Ford had been out of it a lot of years and the Ford fans didn’t have a lot to pull for at that time. I came in at a key time and we were a family entity, not part of the establishment. To me, there was a lot of things that made that come together. Our family side when my grandmother was living, my mother and my dad and all the stuff, it created a bond for the fan.”
“It was a sad day, very unfortunate the way everything happened,” Elliott said. “I flew in earlier that day. It was just a bad day, when you get early spring, late fall, you get all that ice and rain.”