If the object of a car race is to determine the best driver, car and team on a given day, then the ninth Brickyard 400 on Sunday was a rousing success.
Bill Elliott, 46, became the oldest winner of one of NASCAR’s newest marquee events with a dominating victory in front of more than 300,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Elliott led 93-of-160 laps around the 2.5-mile track, including the last 12 after zipping past fellow veteran Rusty Wallace, to notch his 43rd career win and second in a row, following last weekend’s victory at Pocono.
“It seems like it’s been a lifetime getting here and I don’t know how to describe it,” Elliott said. “You just look back, all the hard work, I’m just proud of where I’m at today. I’m proud of the accomplishment.”
As exhilarating as victory was for Elliott, defeat was that disappointing for Wallace and pole sitter Tony Stewart.
Wallace handled his third Brickyard runner-up finish graciously. He said if he couldn’t win, he was glad Elliott did.
Stewart, who ran neck-and-neck with Elliott through the first half of the race, faded in the closing laps to finish 12th. The Columbus, Ind., native, in his haste to leave the track, punched a free-lance photographer working for The Star and left car owner Joe Gibbs to mend fences.
“I know it’s a bitter disappointment for everybody, including Tony,” Gibbs said. “This is the No. 1 place he wants to try to win a race. I thought we had a chance today, but hey, some other people were better, that’s all.”
On this oppressively hot August afternoon, with temperatures inside the cars approaching 135 degrees, nobody was better than Elliott. Or even close to being as good.
Besides Stewart early and Wallace late, only Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett showed any sign of being able to give Elliott’s Dodge a run for the money — $7.4 million in all, of which nearly $500,000 went to the winner.
But Jarrett was victimized by a mistake in the pits while his car was being fueled. Martin drifted out of the picture when his engine went sour.
Tenth place was of little consolation to two-time winner Jarrett.
“Not when you’ve got a car that should have finished, at the worst, second,” he said. “Could we have beaten Elliott? We’ll never know.”
The late fade was doubly distressing for Martin, who, with Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin experiencing engine problems, was in position to catch him in the points standings.
But instead of gaining, he actually lost ground by finishing 28th, one spot behind Marlin. Rookie Jimmie Johnson charged from 37th at the start to place ninth and pass Martin for second in the points, 93 behind Marlin.
“It’s a weird deal the way things are working out this year,” Marlin said. “It could have really been a bad day in the points, but the way it worked out wasn’t too bad.”
Elliott knows something about things having a funny way of working themselves out. He was contemplating retirement two years ago when he was forced to fold his struggling operation, but then Ray Evernham knocked on his door.
The former crew chief for Jeff Gordon, usually stoic in victory or defeat, was too choked up immediately after the race to talk. He was happy for himself, certainly, but equally so for Elliott.
“That’s kind of not like me. I don’t know where all that came from,” Evernham said. “Quite honestly, there were a lot of people who said, when I left (Gordon), that I was never going to win again, that I couldn’t accomplish this. All those things hit you all at once.”
Evernham said he hired Elliott partly on Gordon’s recommendation. Gordon was convinced the 1988 Winston Cup champion still had some victories left in him.
“I went in and said, ‘Look, something big is about to happen. I want you to drive for me,’ ” Evernham said. “I was really very fortunate to get him.”
Elliott showed several times Sunday he still has plenty left in his tank. He went toe-to-toe with Stewart and won, he blew past Wallace with the race on the line and shrugged off the inevitable late-race caution for debris by blasting away from Wallace on a restart with four laps remaining.
That confidence in his ability, he said, comes from the confidence Evernham showed in him during a rocky first season together.
“Regardless of how we ran all last year,” Elliott said, “Ray called me on Monday or Tuesday and said, ‘Look, we’ll get you a better race car next week.’
“You don’t know how good that made me feel. To know he supported me, that no one was talking behind my back, just made me want to come back and drive the car a little bit harder.”
Wallace had a front-row seat to just how hard Elliott is willing to push. He said he got a grin on his face as Elliott went by because he remembered a few years ago when the media were calling for Elliott and the late Dale Earnhardt to retire. Earnhardt was able to quiet his detractors, and now the Elliott bandwagon is filling up fast.
“All of a sudden he’s great and he’s the man to beat,” Wallace said. “So when he passed me, I’m like, ‘That’s OK.’ If I had to be passed by anybody, I’d rather it be Ryan (teammate Newman) or Bill.”
How much has Elliott’s career turned? He went seven years, from 1994 to 2001, without a victory. Next week at Watkins Glen, N.Y., he goes for his third in three weeks.By Steve Ballard The Indianapolis Star