Dodge Exceeds Expectations, Builds Foundation for 2002
HAMPTON, Ga., Nov. 14, 2001 - "Dodge couldn't have written a better script." "I give Dodge high marks in their first year return." "Our team was real competitive from the first race on." "We're holding our heads pretty high." "We couldn't be more pleased."
Those are some of the comments from team owners, drivers and executives as the curtain comes down on the Dodge return to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2001.
When the season started in February, Dodge competed in the Winston Cup Series for the first time in 15 years, eight months and nine days. And it was more than 20 years since a factory-backed team competed in the Series. Ten Dodge Intrepid R/Ts made the field for the 2001 Daytona 500, they captured the first three starting positions and won one of the 125-mile qualifying races. Two Dodge drivers led more laps than any other competitor and three Dodges finished in the top 10. Since then, Dodge won four races, six more poles, and logged 22 top-five finishes and 49 top-10s. Dodges led 1,155 laps so far this season and they swept all four restrictor-plate poles in 2001, the third time in the history of restrictor-plate racing that a single manufacturer won all four poles in a season.
Although satisfying as a first step back into Winston Cup competition, the results are a long way from the Dodge heyday in NASCAR competition. Dodge won 22 races in 1969, and 17 races each in 1966 and 1970. Unless Dodge wins one or two of the final races this season, 2001 will rank tied for 15th on the list of Dodge season wins. Dodge also won four races in 1972.
The first year Dodge won a race in NASCAR Grand National competition was 1953. Lee Petty accounted for five of the six races won by Dodge that year. Jim Paschal won the other one. Dodge won seven races in 1977, the last year the brand won a Winston Cup race before exiting NASCAR racing for more than 20 years. Lee Petty's son Richard accounted for five wins that year.
Dodge won the Winston Cup manufacturers championship in 1970 and 1975. Bobby Isaac and the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge had most of the wins in the year of the first manufacturers championship, and Richard Petty and the No. 43 STP Dodge accounted for most of the wins in the second.
Richard Petty won 37 Winston Cup races and two of his seven Winston Cup championships - 1974 and 1975 - driving Dodge Chargers. Although Petty Enterprises had many disappointments in 2001, the return to Dodge was one of the bright spots.
"Going to Daytona right out of the box and qualifying first and second with Dodge, that's phenomenal," said Petty. "I mean, that's unheard of. Dodge couldn't have written a better script, with them coming back in the races and winning four races up till now. That's phenomenal as far as I'm concerned."
The newest Dodge team owner and winner is also the man who led the development effort bringing the Dodge Intrepid R/T to NASCAR Winston Cup competition - Ray Evernham of Evernham Motorsports. Although Evernham would have liked to do better with his own team throughout the season, he was pleased with their performance last weekend when they won the pole and the race, and he is pleased with the Dodge results.
"I rate Dodge's season an A plus," said Evernham. "They did a fantastic job with everything that they had to do in the time that they had to do it. Developing a car, developing an engine, developing a marketing plan. They get an A in all categories. The cars have sat on poles. They've won races. They've led lots of laps. They're competitive in the points and Dodge has done a tremendous job marketing both Dodge and NASCAR. So, I give Dodge high marks in their first year return."
The driver who enjoyed the most success with Dodge in 2001 is Sterling Marlin, driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge Intrepid R/T. Marlin's victory in the Pepsi 400 in August at Michigan ended a 170-race winless streak that dated to Daytona in July 1996. Currently fourth in the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings after 34 of 36 races, Marlin is ranked 15 spots better than at the same stage of the 2000 campaign.
"Well, I was real pleased with it (the switch to Dodge)," said Marlin. "Our team was real competitive from the first race on. We led a lot of races, won two and ran up front a lot, so I've enjoyed the heck out of it."
Marlin led laps in 22 of the first 34 races this season, second only to Jeff Gordon who led laps in 23 of 34. Marlin led 54 times for 512 laps. He said he felt good about the change event before the season started.
"We've did a lot of testing back in November and December of last year at tracks that we'd run at before, and from what I saw, we were quite a bit quicker than what we had," he explained. "I said at the time, if we didn't have any trouble, we could wind up in the top five in points and win a couple of races, and that's what we've done."
Buddy Baker, television commentator, former Dodge test driver and eight-time Dodge winner in Winston Cup competition, has been an interested observer this season. He expected Dodge to do well.
"One thing about Dodge, when they decide to go racing, they go racing," said Baker. "It's nice to see the Dodge force back in there doing what they're doing and I just think it's healthy for racing to have so many of the manufacturers represented.
"I've been very impressed with their (the Dodges) durability this year, and that's a pretty tough thing to do, to step into Winston Cup the first year and have the durability and be as competitive as they are," continued Baker. "The biggest thing Dodge has to be proud of is just the overall effort of all the teams they have. They've all given 100 percent and they've been right there. I think it's been a great success. But I expected that."
What's the biggest difference since the Dodge heyday in stock car racing? According to Petty, it's technology. "We just sort of figured it out as we went," said Petty of his early days in Winston Cup competition. "It was more of a hands-on, individual deal. Now it's got so big that it's become a company deal. It takes longer to run the problems down, get the people together to make the decisions, and so the technical part now just in those 25 years has been unreal.
"What happens now is you've got specialists in every field," continued Petty. "In '75 we probably had eight or 10 people here, and the engine people were in working on the car, the car people were in working on the engine, the body man was working on everything. Everybody did everything. Now, you've got a specialist who doesn't do anything but shocks. You've got another specialist that doesn't do anything but front ends. You got another that does nothing but rear ends. In the engine room you got people that work on nothing but pistons, you got others that working on nothing but heads, you got another working on nothing but manifolds. Used to be, one or two guys did all that and made the decisions on all that. It's just got away from us in that vein and time has done that. Not that we wanted it to happen, but it has."
Petty said fan reaction to the return of Dodge has been a positive. "It really lit fire under the people when they knew Dodge was back," said Petty. "You had Dodge fans up there before but they couldn't say anything. Now they can wear their hats and coats and really get with the program."
Bob Wildberger, Senior Manager of NASCAR Operations for Dodge Motorsports, attributes Dodge's first year success to teamwork. "We worked very hard using the one team concept we believed in," said Wildberger. "We learned that from our truck program. We know and we believe that if we can do that (work together), we will excel, we will shorten the time it takes to become more competitive and we will continue to get better as a group. And we have done that.
"We got the pole position at the very first race we entered at Daytona. I think expectations immediately went up from 'being competitive' to 'OK, where's that first win?' Of course, we achieved that benchmark later in the year at Michigan. Then came a second and a third. To give ourselves a report card for a launch year, we couldn't be more pleased."
What is the high point of the season so far? "It's hard to pick just one, but I have to go with the first win," said Wildberger. "By the time we got a little better than halfway into the season we had not gotten that first win. Even though everyone else in the world kept saying, 'You're asking for too much,' we were looking for our first win. That happened at Michigan in the presence of our senior management, our dealers and a lot of employees. It was a Cinderella story.
"It was like someone took the weight of the world off our shoulders," he continued. "There was a lot of self-imposed pressure for that first win. To be working toward that, not just for the first 20-odd races of the season or whatever, but also for 500 days before that, and all of a sudden have that happen, that's the high point. No question about it."
Tim Culbertson, Program Manager for Dodge NASCAR Winston Cup Engineering, is pleased with the results this year, but he is already working hard to make next year even better. "Unless we're winning all the poles and winning all the races, we're never going to be totally satisfied," said Culbertson. "Comparing our effort to history, we had a pretty good year and we're holding our heads pretty high. But we're already working very very hard to take what we've learned from this year and make next year even better."
This month in Dodge history:
* 12/7/69 - Bobby Isaac finally got his first superspeedway win with a victory at Texas International Speedway in College Station. Isaac said he had been trying to win a "big race" for six years before the breakthrough at Texas. The victory was the 17th of the season for Isaac and the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge, and the second win for the new Dodge Charger Daytona.
* 11/22/70 - Bobby Allison won the final race of the season in his No. 22 Allison Dodge Charger. The season-ending race was held in Hampton, but not Georgia, as has been the case in recent years. Allison's win came in the Tidewater 300 at Langley Field Speedway, a .395-mile paved track in Hampton, Va.
* 11/24/70 - Bobby Isaac, Nord Krauskopf and Harry Hyde took the winged K&K Dodge Charger Daytona to Talladega to break Buddy Baker's 200.447 mph closed-course record. Despite cold and windy conditions, Isaac broke the record with a run of 201.104 mph.