NASCAR Insider: Elliott among Hall nominees

Bill Elliott’s NASCAR career, which started in a hand-me-down car prepared in an old schoolhouse near Dawsonville, Ga., that was part car dealership, part junkyard and part speed shop, saw him rise from that unlikely beginning to reach the heights of NASCAR.

His performance on the superspeedways in the 1980s earned him the “Awesome Bill” nickname, and last week he was put in position to collect one of his greatest honors yet. The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., which has dropped its requirement that drivers be retired for five years before being eligible for induction, announced him as one of the five newest nominees.

Joining Elliott were two-time Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte, Modified Series veteran Mike Stefanik, engine builder and car owner Robert Yates and driver Buddy Baker. There were 20 already on the nominee list, including the oldest living Cup champion, Rex White, of Fayetteville, Ga.

Many in NASCAR predict that Elliott will be elected to the Hall on the first ballot, given his performance in the 1980s, when he led the way for Ford Motor Company’s NASCAR efforts en route to the 1988 championship and an eventual 44 career victories and 55 poles.

“If that happens, it happens,” Elliott said of his first-ballot chances. “The important thing is it’s an honor just to be associated with the Hall of Fame.”

For Elliott, making it to the Hall from such an unlikely beginning would make enshrinement all the more sweet. As he once said in an interview, his family’s achievements in NASCAR would be like Orville and Wilbur Wright taking their airplane and flying to the moon.

Indeed, it was unlikely. Although his late father, George Elliott, had the resources and the desire to get his sons started in the sport, it was a long shot.

In the beginning, brothers Ernie and Dan had to divide their time between working on the family’s No. 9 Ford, a well-worn Torino driven previously by Richie Panch, leaving then-20-year-old Bill to pull double duty as driver and chief mechanic.

Friends and family members served as crew members before Michigan businessman Harry Melling bought the team and provided the funding needed to begin winning races.

“I just wish some of the people that helped make it happen, like Mother and Daddy and Harry Melling, were here to be a part of it,” Elliott said. “That part is kind of sad.”

The Hall’s selection committee is set to vote in five new inductees May 21.

Junior happy again: Dale Earnhardt Jr., while clearly enjoying the media and fan attention that has come with his popular victory in Sunday’s Daytona 500, has been careful to point out in recent interviews that he doesn’t believe, as many do, that he’s the main reason most people follow NASCAR.

“I don’t really feel that way,” he said on this week’s NASCAR teleconference. “I feel like I represent Junior Nation. I represent my fan base and the people that support our team.

“I think the sport is really kind of divided into the particular supporting systems for each driver. You have the fans of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart. I think we all represent our own fan base. … I don’t carry the whole sport on my shoulders.”

And he said that the exuberance he showed over the victory Sunday should answer those critics who have said he doesn’t have the focus or desire needed to win races and championships. He said that’s why he was so down in interviews in recent years.

“We weren’t running good,” he said of his glum looks in media appearances several years back. “We were struggling. I think people underestimated how much I care about performance. I don’t think people realized how much winning mattered to me.”

Ready to recover: Martin Truex Jr., who won the outside pole for the Daytona 500, but was the first driver out of the race after an oil-pump belt broke on his No. 78 Chevy, looks forward to bouncing back, beginning with the first appearance of knockout-style qualifying for Sprint Cup drivers. It happens this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

“I am excited about it because Todd (Berrier, crew chief) is really innovative, and he comes up with what seems to be crazy ideas,” Truex said in his team’s weekly release. “And once we start getting into this new qualifying format, I think it will evolve rather quickly. There are a lot of smart people in this garage area.”

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