The Homestead-Miami Speedway has been hosting the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season since 2002. For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Bill Elliott, the racetrack has been home to one of his most memorable Winston Cup victories and one of his worst defeats.
Elliott's NASCAR career had been a really great one. He started running in the Cup Series full time for the first time in 1983 and from 1983-1994 Elliott would win 40 races, including two Daytona 500's in 1985 and 1987. He set speed records that will never be set again and he won the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. He was also one of the sports most popular drivers and always took time with the fans. In 1995, Elliott began driving for his own team after running three seasons for legendary car owner Junior Johnson.
Elliott's six seasons running his own team had it's ups and downs. In 1996 at Talladega, Elliott broke his leg after a freak accident after his McDonald's Ford got airborne. The G forces broke Elliott's leg. He missed seven races due to the incident. In 1998, Elliott bruised his sternum in a horrible crash at Talladega. Elliott didn't miss a race but later on in the year, Elliott would miss a race due to his father, George, passing away. In 2000 Elliott would miss two races after tripping over a garden hose and hurting his knee.
He would come close to victory, in his own stuff but would never get his McDonald's Ford to victory lane. Not unless you include one of the Twin 125 mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway in 2000. Elliott came close to victory twice in 1997. He came within ten laps of winning the Daytona 500, until a late race caution flew when Dale Earnhardt flipped. Elliott got freight trained by a Hendrick trio losing the race and finishing fourth. Later on in the year, Elliott finished runner-up at Michigan to Ernie Irvan. By 2000, it had been five long seasons since Elliott won his last Cup race and most people in the sport wondered if he could still win at NASCAR's highest level. Most people, except for Ray Evernham.
Evernham hand picked Elliott to run for his team in 2000, and offered the 45-year old a three year contract, beginning with the 2001 season. It wasn't an easy decision for Elliott. He would have to leave his family ran race team for the second time and he would have to leave Ford Motor Company, a company he had been with since he started his career back in 1976. Evernham's team would run Dodge's starting in 2001. After some thinking, Elliott decided he wanted out of his own deal and wanted to get back to being competitive. He signed the three year deal with the team and Elliott, Evernham and Dodge were ready to go for the 2001 season.
In 2001, Elliott's season got off to a great start, by sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500. However, the rest of the season was a struggle, the lone bright spot came when he led 57 laps and finished third at Michigan. When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series entered the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the 2001 Pennzoil Freedom 400, Elliott was 16th in the standings. He sat on the pole and led the first 52 laps of the event. He was in second position to his teammate Casey Atwood on lap 262, with five laps to go. He was closing in on Atwood, but he was way back and it looked like Elliott would come up short again. That was until Kurt Busch spun in the #97 John Deere Ford, causing a caution. Elliott was on Atwood's back bumper when the race restarted and Elliott went low on Atwood in turn one and took the lead. He never looked back. He took the checkered flag first for the first time since September 1994.
"Pinch me, this is just like Friday," Elliott said in victory lane. "With Ray and these guys behind me no," Elliott said about wondering if he'd ever get back to victory lane. "All the boys have done a hell of a job, their the ones that put this car under me to make it work all day long. I gotta give a couple credits to Ray because he believed in me when a lot of people didn't and people thought he was crazy. It's been a great relationship."
Elliott's 2001 season finished strong and that led to a strong 2002 season. In 2002 the 46-year old won two races at Pocono and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard was one of Elliott's favorite wins, winning at one of the most famous racetracks in the world. When the 2003 season came along, Elliott's season was even better. He was running strong and things were looking good for the future, however Elliott had other plans. The 47-year old had mentioned a couple times through the season that he would like to scale back in the upcoming season. With two races to go in the season Elliott's decision was still not known but he went out and dominated the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at Rockingham. When the season finale came along at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Elliott's decision was still unknown. He started the 2003 Ford 400 in the 20th position, but he quickly came to the top of the field and took his first lead by lap 47. He would dominate the rest of the afternoon and it looked like Elliott would end the 2003 season with back to back victories. He led 189 of the races' 266 laps when he took the white flag. Elliott had a big lead coming off of turn two when his #9 Dodge bobbled coming off of turn two. It was an unreal site. Elliott moved his Dodge up the track as he had a flat right rear tire and his car began to slow. Bobby Labonte would pass him on the backstretch and Elliott would coast home to an eighth place finish.
It was a crushing defeat for Elliott and his fans. With the chill of retirement in the air at Homestead. Elliott had an interview with NBC's Marty Snider, in which Elliott handled with as much grace as Elliott had handled everything in his career.
"We had a great racecar today," Elliott said. " Our Dodge ran so well today, and you know you win them sometimes like that, I don't know if I have ever won one like that, but I've sure lost 'em like that," Elliott finished.
Little did his fans know, that would be Elliott's last run in the #9 Dodge. He would go into semi-retirement in the 2004 season and his #9 car would be driven by rookie Kasey Kahne. Elliott's Homestead blown tire would go down as one of his worst defeats of his career.
Elliott would run two seasons part time for Evernham, before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing and other teams in 2006. In 2007 Elliott would move to the Wood Brothers Racing Ford, where he would drive part time for four seasons. In 2011, Elliott drove for Phoenix Racing. In 2012, Elliott drove one race for NEMCO Motorsports and drove Turner Motorsports' Sprint Cup debut at Daytona in July.
While some of Elliott's races in recent years have been good, the sting of the 2003 Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway still lingers for Elliott and his fans.
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