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A Rock for the Ages
Lars Anderson
December 29, 2003
On a crossroads afternoon for NASCAR, old school fave Bill Elliott won the final fall race at Rockingham as Matt Kenseth clinched the 2003 crown
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December 29, 2003

A Rock For The Ages

On a crossroads afternoon for NASCAR, old school fave Bill Elliott won the final fall race at Rockingham as Matt Kenseth clinched the 2003 crown

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Now this was racing, bold and daring, the kind of racing that once took place in the hills and hollows of the Appalachians, when (as the image-molders at NASCAR like to remind us) the moonshiners ran from the revenuers. Bill Elliott grew up in the shadow of the 'shine business in the little town of Dawsonville, Ga., and on Nov. 9 at Rockingham, Elliott put on a performance that would have made those law-bustin' forerunners proud. What's more, his go-for-broke drive in the Pop Secret Microwave 400 helped make it the most memorable race in not only in NASCAR in 2003 but also in all of motor sports.

Elliott started dead last in the field of 43 at Rockingham, the penultimate race in the final Winston Cup season before Nextel takes over the sponsorship. For the 48-year-old Elliott, who 16 times has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver, the Rock is a special place. He made his Winston Cup debut at North Carolina Speedway in February 1976, when he finished 33rd and won $640. The crowd barely noticed Elliott that day, but 27 years later Elliott, the second-oldest Winston Cup driver, five months younger than Ken Schrader, put the fans in a fever as he made his charge.

By Lap 48 he'd worked his way to 17th. By lap 160 he was third. He was racing just like he used to during his glory days in the 1980s, pedal mashed to the floor, and he was cruising past the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth—all the young hotshots who have become the collective face of the sport. Elliott took the lead for the first time on Lap 186. After out-sprinting Johnson on two restarts, Elliott held on to take the checkered flag, the 44th win of his career, but his first in 50 starts.

Still, this wasn't just a victory for Elliott; this was also a win for all the NASCAR traditionalists, the old schoolers who fret about what corporate money is doing to their sport. And so it wasn't surprising that 30 minutes after the finish the stands were still nearly full, everyone wanting to savor this victory, this link to an earlier, simpler time.

"God, that felt good," said Elliott after the race, as if he were speaking for an entire generation of fans.

Yet Elliott's upset isn't the only reason to put the videotape of the Pop Secret 400 into a time capsule. During the race the sport's past and future dueled in a way that may never happen again. As Elliott drove to victory in the last fall race ever held at the venerable Rock—the track lost the event so that a date on the racing calender could be opened up for a race in Phoenix, one of the new, bigger markets NASCAR has targeted—Kenseth clinched the season's points championship with his fourth-place finish.

It's been five years since Kenseth made his Winston Cup debut—at Dover, where he filled in for Elliott, so that Elliott could attend his father's funeral. All this season Kenseth was as steady as April rain: Though he only won one race, he had a Winston Cup-high 25 top 10 finishes en route to winning his first tide. "I've kept all of my emotions bottled up for so long," said Kenseth after winning the Cup. "I don't count on it until they say it's over and official."

NASCAR fans appreciate that kind of low-key approach to success. The 31-year-old Kenseth may not be as telegenic as other up-and-comers, such as Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson, but his quiet professionalism and his boy-next-door charm have made him a fan favorite. If he keeps driving like he did in 2003, he'll be a superstar some day—maybe even the next Bill Elliott.