Bill Elliott is doing what many older drivers wish they could do. He is leaving on his own terms.

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. There are a lot of empty squares on Bill Elliott's calendar during the first three months of the racing season.

He tested a new Dodge for three days at Daytona International Speedway last week, and he's supposed to join his Evernham Motorsports teammates during a two-day session this week at Las Vegas.

The only races on his docket during the first three months is the Budweiser Shootout all-star race at Daytona in February, the 400-mile race at Las Vegas in March and the 500-mile race at Texas in April.

The NASCAR Nextel Cup Series will speed on without Elliott. For once, he doesn't mind being a spectator.

Elliott announced in December he was giving up his full-time ride with Evernham so he could help develop Jeremy Mayfield's and Kasey Kahne's driving skills and spend more time at home. It's clear he already has the itch to race, but the demands away from the race car will keep him from ever making a comeback.

''Once I get through the Bud Shootout, I'll start throttling back some of the events and start helping Jeremy and Kasey,'' Elliott said. ''I think I've come into the season with a whole different attitude. I've had a completely different makeover. I've not gone through January not wanting the season to start. I'm glad for it to start because I don't have to be in every event. I guess I didn't realize how bad that weighed on me the last five or six years, especially as tough as this series has gotten.''

Elliott said he still hopes to drive in as many as 15 races this year all of his choosing and based on sponsorship. At the worst, he will drive in five.

He's already told Bobby Hamilton he'd like to drive some races on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and he's open to making some selected starts on the Busch Series. He's even talked about returning to his roots on the short tracks around his Dawsonville, Ga., home.

''We'd like to do this for about three years,'' Elliott said. ''That's kind of my goal, maybe come next year with a little better plan. I never really wanted to quit driving. Maybe retire from this level, but whether I go run a Busch car or a truck, always have that option. Now it's time for me to give back. I can be myself, be more laid back and do more with the fans.''

Elliott, 48, has the rare opportunity to do what many other older drivers couldn't leave the sport on his own terms. Others are forced out; others leave following a series accident.

''Rusty (Wallace, 47) said he envied me from the standpoint of what we're trying to do,'' Elliott said. ''I wish I had it planned out a little better, but it'll come together. I think things will be well received when we get things in place. I think for the most part, (deciding which races to run) has been whatever I feel like. Nobody does anything forever. That's just a given fact. It's still good to see you're going to be around the sport and compete insome events. It's kind of a bittersweet deal.''

NASCAR's rule that requires the use of a restrictor plate to reduce speeds at Daytona and its sister track at Talladega, Ala., chased Elliott away from the Daytona 500.

Although he's won the biggest race of the year two times, he's not even sure if he will be in Daytona Beach on race day this year.

''After the 125s (qualifying races for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 12), who knows?'' he said. ''We'll see what transpires, but right now I don't know. I'm just here to fit in anywhere I can. I'm just part of the puzzle. Plug me in wherever I need to be. We're kind of flexible. We'll roll with the flow. Right now, for sure we're going to run the Shootout, Vegas and Texas. From there, we'll see what transpires, and we'll adjust as we go along.

''I'd like to run Atlanta, but I don't think it'll happen for the first race, maybe in the fall. We've got a lot of things going on. One side of me says I'm going to miss running all of the races and the other side of me says if things aren't going right and you can't get anything going, you get halfway into the season, there's nothing more miserable than that.''

Ray Evernham, the team owner, wants Elliott around on race days to help Kahne, a 23-year-old rookie, make the adjustment from the Busch Series to the Nextel Cup.

''Right now he's going to be at about every race the first part of the season,'' Evernham said. ''Then we're going to have to start picking and choosing. Bill is committed to being with Kasey at a moment's notice. We're planning on those two spending a lot of time together.''

That's fine with Elliott. He has nothing but time these days.

''I'm very happy with where I am right now,'' Elliott said. ''It's a new era for me, a new look.''

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net



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