When a driver and team qualifies 34th in NASCAR’s highly competitive Sprint Cup Series, the smart money says to manage the expectations and seek glory some other day. But when the green flag dropped to start the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, hometown favorite Bill Elliott and the crew of his Wood Brothers No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion came out swinging, with chassis changes by the crew and some determined driving by Elliott, a native of the north Georgia town of Dawsonville.
The David Hyder-led crew used several early pit stops to tune on the car, and they hit on a set-up that allowed Elliott to begin climbing through the field. Just after the 300-mile mark, the team was getting some quality TV time on FOX, and it wasn’t for old-times sake. It was due to hard work on pit road and hustle behind the wheel as Elliott worked his way into the top 15 and even into the lead at Lap 215 before surrendering the top spot to make a pit stop.
The Woods then reached into their bag of tricks and tried to pull one of their proven Atlanta strategies and stretch their fuel mileage late in the race. But numerous late cautions foiled that plan. “We were in position to make one less stop than everybody else, but it didn’t work out,” said team co-owner Len Wood, one of the most respected fuel mileage strategists on pit road.
With the fuel strategy plan no longer an option, the Woods and Elliott returned to a more conventional strategy, one that was good enough to allow them to overcome a lap-losing penalty on a pit stop. At Lap 273 of a scheduled 325, sitting in 29th position, two laps behind the leader, the day appeared to be essentially over for the famed No. 21. The smart money would say it was, but Elliott and the team had other ideas.
Using the wave-around rule and some heads-up driving, Elliott got the car back on the lead lap, even though he was often at a disadvantage, tire-wear wise, to the drivers he was racing. By the time a crash between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski set up the first of two green-white-checkered flag restarts, Elliott had made his way to 23rd, on the lead lap.
As the lead pack raced through Turns 3 and 4 on the first restart, a multi-car melee began unfolding just ahead of Elliott and his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. The ol’ cat behind the wheel showed he still had some pretty quick reflexes, and he steered his way through the smoke and grinding metal to line up 14th for the final restart. But Elliott found himself at a disadvantage to drivers behind him who had fresher tires, a huge advantage on an abrasive track like AMS, and he lost two spots at the end. He crossed the finish line challenging pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a top-15 finish but had to settle for a 16th, his best of the young season. It was his second straight strong effort – and second straight 16th-place run, going back to Homestead last fall - on an intermediate track, the size facility that makes up the bulk of the team’s limited schedule.
“I was tickled to death after what we went through,” Elliott said in the garage Sunday night at AMS, standing in sight of a grandstand that bears his name. “We had a penalty on pit road, and then it was just one thing after another. The car was pretty tight and we fought that…. “It was just one of those days, but it turned out.”
The No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion returns to the track on April 18 for the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.