DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Bill Elliott once made it to the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was the Winston Cup golden boy. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville (Ga.).
He was the Huck Finn look-alike, operating a family business, like the Pettys used to do. And like the Pettys of old, he won Winston Cup stock car races at an alarming rate.
But in the Daytona 500 Sunday, Elliott will be driving car No. 11, not the No. 9 fans have come to associate with his name. And he won't be driving the family car, either. He'll be driving for Junior Johnson, a man with his own storied past.
"You've got to put yourself in a situation where something motivates you," says Elliott. "I'm 36. I don't want to live forever, but while I'm alive I want to get all I can out of it."
Last Sunday, he got enough out of his Maxwell House Ford -- 192.090 mph to be exact -- to join his Junior Johnson teammate Sterling Marlin (192.213) on the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500. They have the only two cars to go over the 192-mph barrier, and they are the only two drivers to have their starting positions sewn up. Everyone else was fighting for starting spots in today's Twin 125-mile qualifying races.
"I think Bill and I are both tired of not being the main event in New York," said Johnson, referring to the season-ending banquet that honors the Winston Cup champion.
Elliott won the Winston Cup championship in 1988. The year before that, he won the Winston Million, the only driver ever to win three of NASCAR's Big Four events in the same season and collect the $1 million bonus. He won 11 races in 1985 and six in both 1987 and 1988. There were three more victories in 1989.
Then the winning all but stopped. That's when the uncertainties started. And the unhappiness.
Elliott says he doesn't have much use for tabloid newspapers or any other paper that would like to delve into his personal life and dig around for the reasons he has won only twice in the last two years.
He says he has been reading about presidential candidate Bill Clinton and others and he thinks the public's right to know has gone too far.
Yes, he says, he did go through a divorce. Yes, he has felt a bit frazzled by everyone pulling at him, everyone from his old team, to sponsors, to fans, to writers.
"But my personal life doesn't have anything to do with my racing," he says. "The reason I decided to join Junior is because of a lot of things. Last season, I didn't know if Coors would come back as sponsor and I didn't know if this opportunity to join this team would ever come around again.
"I'd been with my team and Coors a long time and there was a lot of emotional involvement. But in 1987 we had a crew member hurt and then at Atlanta in 1990, Mike Rich, just a kid working on our pit crew, was killed."
For Elliott, Rich's death was probably the last straw. Elliott himself had put the pit crew together and Rich was a good friend.
That Sunday in November, while Elliott was sitting in his car on pit road, waiting for a tire change, the thought that his friend, working on the outside rear tire was in jeopardy never entered his mind. But Ricky Rudd's car went out of control on pit road and crushed Rich between his car and Elliott's.
"Circumstances knocked us out of a lot of wins, like that Atlanta race in '90," says Elliott. "We were leading with 20 laps to go. We come in for a pit stop. We lose the race. We lose a crewman. We lost a couple places in the points. Did it carry over to last season? Shoot, yeah, it carried over.
"I still feel responsible. The only way I can find to accept it at all is to believe it was his time and that's all. And yes, I kind of needed to get away from that."
With the Elliott team, he was the boss. These days he is happy to be just the driver.
"I'm just part of the team," he says. "And I want to be part of it. I spent time at Junior's before the season started getting to know my crew chief [Tim Brewer] and the rest of the guys. I want to know their emotions, how they feel and how they do things. Either we're all together or we're just a bunch of guys doing individual tasks, and that won't work."
The feeling around the Daytona garage area is that this match of Elliott and Johnson is going to be a winner.
"I don't have to prove anything to anybody," says Elliott. "Junior knows I'll run the car as hard as I can, whether I'm in the back or the front. I'm aggressive when I have to be."
Through the years, Johnson has been known for his aggressiveness, and his team's success reflects it. Cale Yarborough, one of the heaviest-footed drivers on record, made history with Johnson, winning three straight championships, in 1976-77-78. Darrell Waltrip followed his footsteps and won Johnson three more titles during the next five years, the last one coming in 1985.
And then came a string of drivers who were not such a perfect fit, including the just-departed Geoff Bodine.
"All you have to be is patient," says Johnson, who tried to get Elliott as his driver five years ago. "The first time I talked to him, I liked his age. Now, he's still young enough, and with NASCAR's efforts to try to stop the pushing and shoving on the track, I think I've got the best finesse driver out there. He's like Darrell in that respect and it's one of the things I like most about him."
Johnson stopped and smiled, as if he knew something no one else did.
"You know, Bill does have a heavy foot," he says, which may not be such a secret after last Sunday's blistering run for the front row. "Once he gets the car set the way he likes it, there isn't anyone out there who can beat him."
It's a happy team. Both Johnson and Elliott seem more free-spirited than either has been in some time. It could be because they've got the fastest Ford going into this Sunday's race, or maybe it's just that they are kindred spirits who have found each other.
"Being with Junior isn't anything new," says Elliott. "I've just moved to a different place. It's just a matter of remembering to sign No. 11 after my name instead of No. 9. I told Junior, if I don't get it right soon, I'll have to call 911 for help."