BILL ELLIOTT (No. 9 Dodge Dealers Dodge Intrepid R/T) NOTE: Elliott, the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion from Dawsonville, Ga., will make career start No. 650 on Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway. Among active drivers, only Ricky...
BILL ELLIOTT (No. 9 Dodge Dealers Dodge Intrepid R/T)
NOTE: Elliott, the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion from Dawsonville, Ga., will make career start No. 650 on Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway. Among active drivers, only Ricky Rudd (721), Dave Marcis (758) and Terry Labonte (699) have more starts. Elliott made his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at Rockingham on Feb. 29, 1976. He qualified 34th and finished 33rd in that event. Since then, Elliott has won 50 poles, 40 races and more than $26 million. He's currently 13th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings in his first year driving for Dodge and car owner Ray Evernham. The 45-year-old veteran is one of only two drivers with no DNFs this season. He's moved from 19th to 13th in the standings in the past seven races since his 21st-place finish at NHIS on July 22, 2001. With 10 races remaining, Elliott has an opportunity to finish in the top 10 in the standings for the first time since 1997. He talks about his 650th career start, racing at NHIS and outlook for the final 10 races.
"I never think of how many starts I've had. I never worry about it. I don't dwell on that stuff. I'm just out there doing what I like to do.
"I haven't really found what I need to do to get around the New Hampshire track. It hasn't been very good to me. We didn't run bad there the last race. Unless you're really, really good, it's one of them deals that's really, really tough to pass at New Hampshire. You don't need that much motor there. Motor is a part of it, but handling means as much as anything.
"As far as the team goes, we're learning a lot. We're trying a lot of different stuff. Mike (crew chief Ford) and the guys have worked hard, and I've tried to run hard and do what I need to do from my standpoint, but New Hampshire has been a place that's kind of eluded me. I've run decent there sometimes, and sometimes I've been total junk. I just haven't been able to get going there. I guess it just doesn't fit my driving style.
"I kind of put myself in a box at Richmond last week by starting in the back. I really made the guys work hard, but I'd rather start in the back and go to the front than start in the front and go to the back. If you can't maintain, it's good to start in the front. Track position this day and time is a crucial deal, but if you're decent enough, you can get to the front. It doesn't matter where you start. You can start well and have something happen and be in the back anyway. Sometimes at the start of the race, it's not a negative to be back there. In some cases you can be more patient.
"The guys on the team have worked for it. They have busted their butts, and I think that's what helps drive me every week. They have really worked hard. They deserve more than what we've done, and that keeps me going. I know how much blood, sweat and tears they've put in this deal, and that's the key.
"I feel pretty good, but the guys on the team are the ones that are getting tired. You see it in a lot of people's performance at this time. You tear up several cars in a stretch like this and get behind, it's going to be tough to maintain or catch up. This time of year, money gets tight, people get tired, tempers get short and anything can happen.
"I'm in a different light than I used to be. I don't have to worry about the garbage of running the race team anymore. It's like a load off me. I can get away from it for two or three days, but the guys come back in Monday morning and they're wide open at it again.
"The first race at Dover I was in an accident, and it took us a long time to fix it. The guys worked hard, never gave up and we went back out there and finished the race. That says a lot. If we can fix it and go back out and run that's what we need to do. That's why we've finished every race this season -- that and lots of luck."
CASEY ATWOOD (No. 19 Dodge Dealers Dodge Intrepid R/T)
NOTE: Atwood, a 21-year-old Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender from Nashville, Tenn., led the way for Dodge at New Hampshire in July with a 12th-place finish in his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at the New England track. Atwood ranks 31st in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings and third in the six-driver Raybestos rookie competition.
"I ran Busch cars three times at New Hampshire. My first time at New Hampshire, I qualified second in 1998, so it's always been a pretty good track for me. I definitely like it. It's always suited my driving style from the first time I saw it. I took to it well. It's a flat track, and I normally run well on flat tracks.
"It's hard to pass at New Hampshire, but if you can get your car to turn good in the center and come off good, you can pass. You've got to have your car decent. Track position is really, really important there because it's so hard to pass. It's going to be pretty important to qualify. If you can qualify decent there I think you can stay there all day.
"We had a really good car there last time. We led some and then we pitted and the caution came out and got us a lap down. We were able to make it up. We'll go back there and try to improve on our qualifying effort and get a better finish.
"If I'm in the top 10 in qualifying and the race, that would be good. We had a car that could have run in the top five last time. When I was trying to get my lap back, I was running right behind Ricky Rudd. Jeff Gordon was right behind me and couldn't do anything with me. We got our lap back. I'm going to go up there looking for a top five, but if we get a top 10, I'll be happy with that.
"It was a little bit frustrating at Richmond having a car that good and having problems (clutch). You can't do anything about it. You've just got to go out and make the best of what you've got. We did that as a team. They had to push me off every time, and I know that was really hard on them. They worked hard in the pits. They were probably huffing and puffing after every stop, but that's what we had to do to get out there and finish the race. I'm pretty proud of everybody. Once we get everything sorted out, we'll have some good finishes.
"We're halfway through that 20-week stretch, and a week off would always be good, but it hasn't been too bad on me. I'm more worried about the crew. They have to work every day. I get to come home during the week and do nothing. It hasn't been too bad on me, but I wish they would do something about it next year and give us a week off or something.
"Tempers have been a little bit shorter lately on the race track, and maybe that's got something to do with it, but our team has been handling it just fine.
"Anything's possible. We're 31st in the point standings right now, and I'd be real happy if we could get to the top 25. After the struggle we had at the beginning of the season, that would be a really good second half of the season. I think that's what our goal is right now, to go for that. If we get close, that's fine. If we make it, that would be even better.
"I've pretty much forgot about the rookie race. From now on, we're just going to try to get top 10 and top 15 finishes. I think Kevin Harvick has pretty much got the rookie title locked up. It's no big deal. We're just going to try to do the best we can in these last 10 races and come back next season and try to do better.
"Experience is all we needed. We were a brand new team, and we all needed to get experience together. We all needed to learn each other and what everybody wanted. We were going through different people earlier this season, and now I think we've got a team that we're going to stick with for awhile and we can all gel and get better.
"I felt comfortable with the Dodge at the beginning of the season, but I think we're learning more about it as time goes on. We're learning more about what the motors want as far as combinations and we're learning more about the body and what it wants. It's just going to take time to get everything where we need it. I think the car is better with the two-inches on the front valence. You notice it at some places more than others. At Indy and Michigan you can feel it a little bit, but you can't really tell at the short tracks.
"I went to see the Tennessee Titans play last night and they lost. I go to all the games I can. Most of them are on Sundays. When our season is over they have a few games left, so I try to go at the end of the season. Steve McNair got hurt and they had to bring in the old guy (Neil O'Donnell) and he didn't cut it.
"There's a lot of stuff to do in Nashville. I go to the Titans games. I stay away from the Grand Ol' Opry. I like country music, but that's the old stuff. My favorites right now are like Garth Brooks and Toby Keith. I've never met them. Toby Keith sang the national anthem at Chicago, but I didn't know he was there. I'll try to meet them sometimes, but right now, I just try to keep up with my racing."