Northern Georgia was where Bill was comfortable, but if he was going somewhere in the racing world, he had to expand his horizons. In 1976, the Elliott family team (which included Ernie as the crew chief, Dan building transmissions and a few buddies) drove to Rockingham, North Carolina to compete in the Carolina 500. Bill qualified, but only ran 32 of the 492 laps thanks to a broken oil pump; he placed 33rd. George wasn't ready to give up and they continued to run major races over the summer. Bill's best finish was 14th in Nashville, but the family barely made enough money to cover their expenses. The problem was not Bill's driving, but the equipment that constantly cut races short. George knew they could do well with a better car, and the next year they did just that.
With a new 1977 Mercury, Bill finished 10th at Charlotte and 11th in Atlanta. Finally, he began to get some attention. The next January, NASCAR's annual record book contained the following entry: "Bill Elliott increased his Winston Cup activity in 1977 and improved his performance statistics a great deal. He notched two 10th place finishes - one at Darlington and another at Charlotte. He started short-track racing in 1974 and moved up to Winston Cup competition in 1976. The youngster bears watching - with the right equipment, he could be a strong contender."
NASCAR was right. In 1978, Bill went to his first Daytona 500, where he gridded eighth and finished ninth, five laps down. He backed that up with ninth at Darlington, an impressive sixth at Talladega, another ninth at Daytona's summer Firecracker, and a sixth in the Southern 500.
The next year, the Elliotts had a surprise for everyone. Bill qualified sixth, his career best, and finished second in the Southern 500 at Darlington. Also that day, Ernie was honored as Sears/Craftsman's top crew chief. Altogether in 1979, Bill earned $57,330 and brought his finish average up to 14.3. The NASCAR record book entry about Bill reads "Bill competes in several races each season and impressed everyone with his driving ability, but has never been able to put together a full-fledged campaign on the Winston Cup trail." One reason for this was the ever-present lack of funding. The Elliotts were independent, but they couldn't go on without a major sponsor to back them up. To make matters worse, 1980 proved a disappointing year for Bill's driving. Following a 12th place finish at the Daytona 500, Bill encountered a streak of bad luck at Atlanta (29th), Talladega (21st) and Charlotte (a wreck on lap seven put him in last). All this was further complicated by a new NASCAR requirement that all wheelbases be downsized five inches. To George, that meant a new car, and there was no money for that in the budget. The Elliotts were on their last leg.