Dodge fishing for school of Marlin in 2002

Dodge returned to the NASCAR Winston Cup Circuit after a 16-year absence in 2001 and opened the season with a bang by capturing the front row for the 43rd annual Daytona 500 with Bill Elliott and Stacy Compton.

The 500-day countdown leading up to the 2001 Daytona 500 began at the DaimlerChrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Oct. 7, 1999. Ray Evernham assumed the duties as Manager for the Dodge Motorsports NASCAR Winston Cup program, and when the season began, five teams and 10 drivers embarked on a grueling, 10-month, 36-race high-speed odyssey.

When the smoke finally settled at Loudon, N.H., in November, Sterling Marlin and his No. 40 Coors Light Dodge Intrepid team out of the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates stables ended up at the head of the class.

Marlin, who had not finished in the top 10 in the final series standings since 1996, bounced back from a 19th-place finish in 2000 with a third-place ranking to pad his 2001 resume that included two victories, a pole, 12 top fives and 20 top 10s with only two DNFs.

The 44-year-old driver from Columbia, Tenn., flexed his muscle from the start for the first-year team. With finishes of seventh, eighth and third in the first three races, Marlin found himself leading the standings after the first three races. He was the only driver to retain a top 10 position throughout the season. With three top-five finishes to end the '01 campaign, Marlin moved from fifth to third and matched his career-best ranking by the end of the season.

"I think we can be right in there close contending for the title next season," Marlin said. "A lot of ifs will be involved, but we had five finishes of 32nd or worse this season. If we could have replaced three of those with top fives, we would have been right there this year.

"Chip and Felix put together a great team, and we had a great season. We won two races and a pole and ended up with a car that had five top-five finishes in seven starts. We're going to have a fleet like that next season and make a banzai run for the championship."

Marlin's miracle chassis No. 115, finished third at Michigan in its first start in June. On the return trip to Michigan on Aug. 19, 2001, Marlin became a part of Dodge's racing heritage by winning the rain-shortened Pepsi 400 with chassis 115.

The same Intrepid finished second in the Brickyard 400 and the NAPA 500 at Atlanta, fifth at Kansas and Homestead and won the fall race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"They're going to try to fingerprint that car, that's for sure," said Tim Culbertson, Program Manager, Dodge NASCAR Winston Cup Engineering. "In the hands of another driver, that car might not be better, but it sure worked for Sterling. You have to try to customize a car for each driver, but when you figure out what you have, then you can reproduce the car."

Marlin led the way for Dodge in 2001 with 18 top finishes in 36 starts. He scored 83 of Dodge's 158 manufacturers points, second only to Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon who scored 102 of 248 for Chevrolet. Nine drivers scored manufacturers points for Dodge. Ward Burton, who finished 14th in the standings, led the way for Dodge in nine races and scored 37 points, while Elliott finished out front for Dodge three times and scored 17 points. Elliott ended up 15th in the standings, his best finish since '97. Elliott and Burton also won races for Dodge in 2001.

Dodge finished the 2001 campaign with four victories, seven poles, 25 top fives and 52 top 10 finishes.

"We set our goals high and from the engineering manager's perspective until you're winning all the races and poles and leading the most laps, you're not going to be satisfied," Culbertson said. "From a historical perspective, I think we had a good first year back. The program received a lot of compliments from people in the sport, and I think we did a pretty good job."

Three drivers will not return for Dodge in 2002. Jason Leffler will join the Craftsman Truck Series in a Dodge, Dave Blaney moves to the Jasper Motorsports Winston Cup Team and Stacy Compton has a full-time Busch Grand National ride lined up for '02. Veteran Jimmy Spencer will replace Leffler and drive the No. 41 Target Dodge Intrepid R/T for Chip Ganassi and company, Jeremy Mayfield will take over the No. 19 Dodge Dealers Dodge Intrepid R/T for Evernham Motorsports and Hut Stricklin will replace Blaney in Bill Davis' No. 93 Intrepid.

Casey Atwood will move to the No. 7 Jim Smith-owned Dodge for his sophomore Winston Cup season.

"We're looking forward to working with these three new drivers," Culbertson said. "They're going to bring a lot of experience to our program, and I can't wait to get started."

Marlin and Spencer didn't waste any time preparing for 2002. They tested recently at Lakeland Speedway, a short track in Lakeland, Fla.

"Sterling and I drove each other's cars, and they were strong right out of the box," Spencer said. "I got to work with (crew chief) Doug Randolph and (team manager) Andy Graves, and I don't think it's going to take me a long time to get used to driving the Dodge.

"I don't think there's going to be a big learning curve. I've got a great teammate, and we found that our setups are close. We like a little different tweaks on the front end settings, but other than that, it's pretty similar."

Spencer hasn't won a NASCAR Winston Cup race since 1994 when he drove for Junior Johnson. Ironically, Elliott hadn't won since 1994 when he drove for Johnson until he broke a 266-race winless streak at Homestead in 2001.

"Bill won this year in a Dodge, so I don't see why we can win right out of the box, too," Spencer said. "We're going to establish some realistic goals for 2002. We want to finish in the top 10 in points. Can we win a race? Yeah. I think we can win a race or two, so those will be our two primary goals, winning and finishing in the top 10."

Culbertson says Dodge won't rest on its 2001 accomplishments.

"Sterling finishing third in the points may be even more impressive than our four wins and seven poles," Culbertson said. "No one expected a Dodge to have a team that finished third in the standings the first year back.

"Now, the expectations will be there. We've got to keep working hard and improving our cars and teams. I'm optimistic we can do that. The one-team approach worked well in 2001, and I think it'll work even better in 2002."

-Dodge Motorsports-