After nearly three decades of racing competition, Bill Elliott (#91 Evernham Motorsports Dodge) hardly needs a new challenge. But as the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season looms, he's found one.

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 #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 (#9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) - who succeeded him on the #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 #9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge in the Budweiser Shootout on February 7 at Daytona. After that, he's eyeing a mixedbag 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 (January 6-8).

Elliott, who finished ninth in last season's NASCAR Top 10, is testing this week in support of Kahne and fellow team-mate Jeremy Mayfield (#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 realised 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."

For the record Thursday's final two test sessions produced some interesting times and leaders. Elliott Sadler (#38 M&M's Ford) led the morning session with a top lap of 187.664 mph. Ken Schrader (#49 BAM Racing Dodge) led the afternoon session at 187.793.

Johnny Sauter (#30 AOL Chevrolet) led the two-hour afternoon drafting session at 189.713. John Andretti (#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.