After nearly three decades of racing competition, Bill Elliott (No. 91 Evernham Motorsports Dodge) hardly needs a new challenge. But as the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season looms, he?s found one.

- Session 2, Day 3 Speeds

Functioning as Evernham Motorsports? third driver, the 1988 series champion appears happy, refreshed, and ready to race. This season, however, he?ll be doing it at his own discretion.

Elliott, who announced in December that he would cut back to a partial schedule in 2004, is testing the No. 91 Dodge during this week?s NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions at Daytona International Speedway.

This year, he sees himself filling a variety of roles for team owner Ray Evernham, from counseling 2004 Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) ? who succeeded him on the No. 9 team ? to testing new chassis for Evernham Motorsports.

?It?s a different role for me and it?s a unique role for me,? Elliott said Thursday as he chatted with media covering NASCAR Preseason Thunder. ?I?m not necessarily walking away.?

What he is doing is picking and choosing.

First, Elliott will run the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge in the Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 7 at Daytona. After that, he?s eyeing a mixed-bag schedule of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events. He?ll even hop in his own dirt-track car whenever he gets the chance.

?My first goal is to take care of Ray and make sure I can contribute whatever I can from my side, then I can start expanding off to my side,? Elliott said.

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams testing this week are the teams that finished in even-number positions in 2003 car owner points. Teams that finished in odd-number positions in 2003 car owner points tested last week (Jan 6-8).

Elliott, who finished ninth in last season?s NASCAR Top 10, is testing this week in support of Kahne and fellow teammate Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). He?s tested well, too, running sixth-fastest in both Wednesday test sessions (186.305 mph in the morning and 187.317 in the afternoon). On Thursday, he was 14th-quickest in the morning (186.116) and seventh-quickest in the afternoon (187.301). He was sixth during the afternoon drafting session (189.016).

Elliott said he realized late last season that a more creative approach to 2004 might be more suitable for him.

?I?ve done this for so long, I?d just like to see things from the other side a little bit and still enjoy some parts of the racing,? he said.

The chance to mentor Kahne and to spend more time with Evernham contributing to testing and research offers him the opportunity to throttle back a bit, yet still compete.

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


- That time of year... If it?s early January, then Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) has his sights set on a Daytona 500 victory.

It?s one of the few milestones to elude him in his long, illustrious career, and he?s just as determined as ever to pursue it.

?We?ve come so close to winning it so many times,? said Wallace, the 1989 series champion, who visited with the media during Thursday?s lunch break. ?We?d lose it with 10 laps to go and five laps to go and things like that. Maybe it?ll be my year this year.?

Especially after last season, when Wallace finished an uncharacteristic 14th in the series points standings. Back with a new crew chief in Larry Carter, Wallace has turned some satisfactory speeds during NASCAR Preseason Thunder, including being among the 10 faste

st drivers in five of the six test sessions.

?I believe the performance is definitely there in the car,? Wallace said. ?It?s just what lane you get in. I?ve always told everybody you can?t win this race until you?re coming off turn four.?

- Ready to race.. Two-time series champion Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg?s/got milk? Chevrolet), also has his sights set on a Daytona 500 victory. Like Wallace, Labonte has won his share of major series events. And also like Wallace, he?d like to add NASCAR?s signature race to his list of accomplishments.

?It?s always been a very difficult race to win over the years,? said Labonte, who also visited with the media during Thursday?s lunch break. ?It hasn?t changed. There are a lot of guys that burn the same fuse I do ? like Rusty Wallace and some others ? that have won a lot of races and some championships but still haven?t won the 500. It?s a tough one to win.?

Labonte finished 10th in the 2003 NASCAR Top 10, and he enters 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series preparations with similar expectations. One thing that has not changed, he said, is the significance assigned to Speedweeks and the Daytona 500.

?It?s always been that way,? Labonte said. ?I can remember back years ago when people hardly did any testing. They still always tested at Daytona for the 500.?

- Etc... Thursday?s final two test sessions produced some interesting times and leaders. Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M?s Ford) led the morning session with a top lap of 187.664 mph. Ken Schrader (No. 49 BAM Racing Dodge) led the afternoon session at 187.793. Johnny Sauter (No. 30 AOL Chevrolet) led the two-hour afternoon drafting session at 189.713. John Andretti (No. 1 DEI Chevrolet), who has hovered near the top of the charts all week, was third in both the morning (187.005) and afternoon (187.430) sessions.

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