Bill Elliott overcame starting from the rear of the field (engine change), as well as a late race charge by Jimmie Johnson to earn the first victory of the season for Evernham Motorsports. It was a sweet victory for Elliott, who made his first ...
Bill Elliott overcame starting from the rear of the field (engine change), as well as a late race charge by Jimmie Johnson to earn the first victory of the season for Evernham Motorsports. It was a sweet victory for Elliott, who made his first career start at The Rock in 1976.
Elliott and Johnson swapped the lead several times during the 400-mile event, but after Elliott took the lead from Johnson on lap 321, the Dodge driver succeeded in holding off the hard-charging No. 48 Chevy for the final 75 laps. In the end, it was all Elliott as he beat Johnson by a margin of 1.23 seconds, or about nine car-lengths.
Elliott's win prompted questions about whether or not the 48-year-old driver will retire at the end of this season, "Right now we need to focus on one race at a time. We'll worry about next year next year. I think collectively Ray and I have got some decisions to make, but all-in-all I'm so proud of this race team, and I don't want to take anything away from this race team. We've still got another race left. Once Homestead is over with we'll worry about next year and what we all end up collectively doing."
The finish marks Elliott's 44th career victory in 730 starts, and makes him the third driver this season to overcome a dead last start to merit the win.
"We tore the engine up with 10 minutes to go in practice before qualifying," said Elliott of the Friday decision to change an engine. "They got the motor changed, the oil tank changed, all the oil lines and got it back out by the time qualifying time rolled around. When we qualified, that was our fourth lap on the racetrack. It was an awesome lap. The guys do such a good job."
Jimmie Johnson finished second, his fifth straight top-three finish.
"We were a little short," said Johnson. "But today was just such a goal for me - to run well here. I have struggled at this track for so long. To finish second and have a shot a winning means so much to me."
Elliott's teammate Jeremy Mayfield was third.
"He's (Elliott) getting older, and I was ready to get fired" joked Mayfield. "So we figured we better turn it up a notch."
Newly crowned 2003 Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth was fourth, clinching his first career series title, as well as the first championship for car owner Jack Roush.
"I got all this stuff bottled up inside because I didn't want to get too excited the last few months,'' said a teary-eyed Kenseth. "I don't know what I'm going to do now. It's an awesome feeling."
Polesitter Ryan Newman rebounded from an ugly incident with Jeff Gordon to finish fifth. Newman and Gordon traded paint vigorously before Gordon finally spun Newman. Gordon was penalized by NASCAR for rough driving, falling down a lap and finishing 22nd.
"It was hard racing," commented Newman on the contact with Gordon. "I didn't spin him (Jeff Gordon) out, but he spun me out. NASCAR penalized him for it I understand. It's not good, hard racing when somebody spins you out. It cost us a lot of track position, but we made it back. We should have been able to make some benefits there in the pits and didn't capitalize on them. We'll go on. We got a top five finish here, and it was definitely a good effort for the team."
Jimmie Johnson moves to second place -- 38 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in championship points. Ryan Newman climbs a spot to fourth, while Jeff Gordon slips a rung to fifth.
A slim margin of 137s points separate positions two through five, making the battle at Homestead for second place. The difference in prize money payouts between spots two and three is in the neighborhood of one million dollars.
Notably, this was the last fall race at the famed North Carolina Speedway, where they have been racing twice a year for the past 38 seasons. A schedule shuffle awarding the Fontana, California track two events next season moves Darlington's traditional Labor Day Southern 500 to this weekend in 2004.