As expected Evernham Motorsports announced Thursday, that veteran driver Bill Elliott will run a limited schedule in the 2004 Nextel Cup Series. There has been speculation all season that Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup champion had his eye on retirement. The arrangement to compete in 12-15 events, is the plan to faze Elliott out of the racing side of the sport and into a mentor role at Evernham Motorsports.
Elliott, who has earned 44 career victories, was expected to run the No. 91 Dodge, but stated that he plans on continuing to run the No. 9 next season.
"Right now when I run I'll run the 9," said Elliott. "Kasey will run the 9 when I'm not racing. I know I'll run the Bud Shootout. I probably won't run the 500. Vegas will be our first real event. We've got a plan, but we're still trying to put it all together."
Elliott is expected at some point to shift to another car number if sponsorship support can be attained. Ray Evernham and Sammy Johns will split crew chief duties for Elliott.
Kasey Kahne, the young upstart, who turned heads in the Busch series will assume primary driver duties in the No. 9 Dodge, the seat that has been occupied by Elliott for the last three years.
"That's a big jump, especially for me," said Kahne. "Bill is still going to run some races, just not as many. That seat opened up and for Ray Evernham to pick me as his driver and want to work with me is the biggest jump I could ever have in racing.
"I'm really excited to be able to make this jump and be part of Evernham Motorsports and Bill Elliott. I wouldn't have believed this would have happened half a year ago. Being in the Busch Series and doing the things we did with that team that hadn't had such a good year the year before and neither had I, I think that was pretty appealing to some people.
"I'm looking forward to racing the Busch car next year, too, and making the jump. That's really the biggest thing I keep thinking about. The next Nextel Cup race is going to be the Daytona 500. That's hard to believe. I really can't wait until we get there. It's something that's definitely tough to take in."
Kahne, who finished seventh in Busch series points in 2003, had been signed to a development deal with Ford Racing. Reportedly, Ford has not released Kahne from his contract, although as far as Dodge and the Evernham camp are concerned, Kahne is free to make the multi-year commitment to the No. 9 Dodge.
"From the legal side, his attorneys and things I know, there is no contract," said Evernham. "The contract was terminated. Kasey honored all his agreements with Ford. He did it in a gentlemanly manner, lots of correspondence over the last couple of months, so there is no contract with Ford."
Steve Lewis, a scout for the USAC Silver Crown Series, first noticed Kahne and brought him the USAC series. In Kahne's first year of USAC, he garnered Rookie of the year, both USAC Midget championships and the Driver of the year title.
It was then that Ford recognized the talents of Kahne, signing him to a development deal and giving him the choice of what he wanted to drive. Special test sessions were set up for him to drive Bobby Rahal's CART car, and a Busch car at ppc Racing. Ultimately, after a brief stint in the open wheel platforms of the Toyota Atlantic series and Formula Ford Kahne chose stock cars, securing a limited schedule with Robert Yates in the 2002 Busch series.
In 2003, Ford provided funding and support for Akins Motorsports, as Kahne moved to the No. 38 Ford full time where he earned one win, one pole in 2003, and scored 14 top-fives.