Bill Elliott acting as mentor to Kingsport driver John King Jr.

Jeff Bobo • Mar 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — A little bit of the “Awesome” must have rubbed off on Kingsport native John King Jr., who made his debut as a Bill Elliott Racing development driver Saturday night with a ninth-place finish in the Late Model race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

But Elliott doesn’t take much of the credit for King’s successful debut. Elliott said Wednesday all he can do is provide his development drivers some of the necessary pieces, and it’s up to the drivers to turn those pieces into performance.

Elliott skipped the Bristol races this past weekend but visited Fairway Ford in Kingsport on Wednesday. Elliott said he was in town to look at some new showroom Mustangs, but he also took the opportunity to meet with his driver, whose father John King owns the dealership.

Although the popular term for their association is “development deal,” Elliott said he thinks of it more as a partnership with King Jr. and his other young drivers.

Aside from King Jr., Bill Elliott Racing features four other “development” drivers, including his son and nephew, who are at various levels of local short track and regional touring series levels.

“Not necessarily calling it a driver development, it’s just a pooling of resources to make things better for everybody,” said Elliott. “Getting the right breaks is as important as anything, and that’s what’s going to be the key to making it to the next level. Hopefully we can bring some little something to the table that might get them a foot in the door, and sometimes that leads to something bigger.”

King Jr., 20, is already a seasoned dirt Late Model racer, but he has NASCAR aspirations. He’s already acquired a truck that he plans to practice in and hopefully race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series later this year.

Elliott is no stranger to dirt and in his spare time has been known to compete on bull rings around the country including Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap. Elliott noted, however, that any driver who aspires to a NASCAR career will eventually have to make the switch from dirt to paved tracks, and that’s what King Jr. is doing this year.

“If you’ve got the means to go run some dirt, I think dirt is a good avenue to go for a period of time,” Elliott said. “But on the flip side of that, you’ve got to be able to go run asphalt stuff because asphalt is what’s going to continue to take you up to the next level.”

That’s where Elliott’s knowledge and experience will come in handy for King Jr.

“Some of the stuff I can’t (teach him),” Elliott said. “Some of the stuff he’s got to learn on his own. What we can do is help put some of the pieces together.

“He’s got to make it all fit, but we can help him sort through it, and get the parts and pieces, and lead him in the right direction.”

There were lots of parts and pieces flying around the high banks of BMS during Saturday night’s 100-lap UARA-Stars Late Model race, but they were coming from crashed cars. Of the 36 cars that started the race, only 15 finished, and most of those that didn’t finish were involved in the multitude of crashes.

But King Jr. stayed with the lead pack all race, avoided the carnage, and brought the car home in the top 10 without a scratch.

“John did a very good job coming here Saturday night and being able to run like he did, and I think that says a lot for the guys,” Elliott said.

King Jr. was modest about Saturday’s race. But he does credit Elliott for helping him get off to a good start on this new asphalt adventure.

“I’ve learned all sorts of things, I don’t know where to start,” he said. “Just being able to mix it up with them in the shop and learn everything that they’ve learned over the years. It was a little hairy (at Bristol). I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. It was neat being there on NASCAR weekend with everything going on, and the TV companies coming in and out — everybody working like an army of ants. It was neat being a part for that.”

King Jr. will run the full UARA-Stars Late Model touring series in 2009, which makes stops across the Southeast at tracks including Rockingham, Hickory, Myrtle Beach, Newport, Motor Mile and a big July Fourth event at Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Va.

Aside from helping shepherd King Jr.’s early racing career, Elliott still has a NASCAR Sprint Cup career of his own which includes at least 10 mores races with the Wood Brothers in 2009. Beyond that there’s nothing definite, but at 53 years of age Elliott said he’s still looking for new opportunities.

“Right now I’m at a time in my career that, depending on what opportunity comes along, would probably sway my decision on what I want to do,” Elliott said. “I love driving for those guys, and they’ve been so easy to work with, and it’s been so much fun and enjoyable to go to the racetrack. It’s a lot of pressure knowing a lot of times you have to qualify on times, but one thing I do miss is not doing it every week and staying as sharp as you need to be from everybody’s standpoint.

“But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. We’ve got funds to run the 12 races this year, and I commend them for sticking with that — doing what they need to do to try to stay organized so they’re in a position if the money does come along down the road they can be back in it for the full race deal.”

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