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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 11, 2001 -- Fireworks usually highlight festivities at Daytona International Speedway in July, but Bill Elliott, Ray Evernham and the Evernham Motorsports Dodge Intrepid team lit the fuse a few months early yesterday...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 11, 2001 -- Fireworks usually highlight festivities at Daytona International Speedway in July, but Bill Elliott, Ray Evernham and the Evernham Motorsports Dodge Intrepid team lit the fuse a few months early yesterday at the famous 2.5-mile track.

With two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott behind the wheel of the No. 9 Dodge Dealers Intrepid R/T, Dodge roared back to NASCAR Winston Cup competition with a bang after a 15-year absence as Elliott captured the pole position for the 43rd annual Daytona 500.

Evernham, a 43-year-old New Jersey native, gave up an illustrious career as Jeff Gordon's crew chief to help Dodge return to Winston Cup Racing. As manager of Dodge Motorsports NASCAR Winston Cup program, in addition to owning Elliott's and rookie Casey Atwood's Dodge Dealers Intrepids, Evernham led Dodge's 500-day quest to racing's promised land.

Elliott's lap of 183.565 mph on Saturday in first-round Daytona 500 qualifying carried Dodge back to some cherished Florida real estate -- Daytona's victory lane. The lap gave Dodge its first pole since 1978 when Neil Bonnett captured the No. 1 starting spot at Bristol, Tenn. It was Elliott's 50th career pole and fourth No. 1 starting spot in the Daytona 500.

"This is a little more special (than the other three)," Elliott said. "Each year you come back and achieve a new goal, and it's a little more special about how things happen. I think it's more deserving for these guys than it ever was for me. They're the ones that have put in the dedication and effort week in and week out that's made all this program happen.

"Ray came in and believed in us. The next step is all a part of making this a stronger, more organized race team. That's what it's going to be all about."

Evernham and Elliott are no strangers to success in NASCAR. Between them they have 87 victories, 80 poles, 268 top-five finishes and four NASCAR Winston Cup championships.

Like Elliott, yesterday's pole holds a special place in Evernham's heart.

"This one is really gratifying," Evernham said. "It's my first one as a car owner. The other one (at Daytona) was as a crew chief. It's Mike Ford's first as a crew chief, so I think it's different for both of us.

"To come this far in 500 days was a lot of work for a lot of people. We were lucky enough to get Bill and Mike together as a package, and that's certainly already a good speedway program."

Dodge entered Winston Cup with a one-team approach, and the strategy obviously paid huge dividends Saturday. After driver Jerry Nadeau's lap was disallowed, Dodge Intrepid driver Stacy Compton moved up to second, giving members of the Dodge Garage the front row for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

Compton's No. 92 Kodiak-sponsored Melling Racing Intrepid circled the 2.5-mile track at 182.682 mph and gave the former Dodge NASCAR Craftsman Truck driver his best starting spot ever in Winston Cup competition.

"The reality of this one-team concept, and I think Stacy Compton's performance clearly shows, that a one-team approach to this project pays benefits to those in that process," said Lou Patane, Vice President -- Motorsports Operations and Mopar Performance Parts. "I walked over to the winner's circle and Bill and Ray Evernham were there being interviewed. The first thought that came into my mind was the last time I was here at Daytona was about a year ago with another Red Dodge, and I was over there in the winner's circle at the end of the 24 Hours of Daytona.

"For us, it's been a 500-day quest to get here, to get to the next phase of Dodge's page in Winston Cup history. Getting to this point was a long, hard job, fulfilled by a lot of folks, including all of the teams. I couldn't be prouder of all of the Dodges.

"My first objective clearly for the whole program was to get all 10 Dodges qualified. We can't expect to do well in the race unless we begin the race. This is about all 10 Dodges being involved in the program."

And Evernham Motorsports spearheaded the program's development. Evernham worked closely with Dodge engineering and design groups to field the Intrepid. Along with the four other Dodge teams -- Petty Enterprises, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Melling Racing and Bill Davis Racing, the 10 Dodge teams put four Intrepids in the top seven in first-round time trials.

Although positions 3-30 will be determined by the results of Thursday's Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races, seven of 10 Dodges qualified 25th or better Saturday, and the other three were 30th, 31st and 36th out of 52 cars attempting to make the race.

"We've come a long way," Evernham said. "It's been a big job, and as long as it keeps going forward every day, which it is, then I've just got to accept things the way they are.

"No matter what happens, here, I've got guys in the shop that believe they're going to win the Daytona 500. That's what it's going to take. Whether or not they're going to win it, who knows? The point is, they're working believing they can. Sooner or later, they're going to start to win."

The first Dodge win came Saturday in qualifying. Today's Budweiser Shootout, with Elliott fielding the only Intrepid entry, will be the second test, followed by Thursday's 125-milers.

Winning the pole on Saturday will give Evernham and company plenty of confidence in all of the upcoming events.

"Winning the pole says an awful lot about the Dodge program in general," Evernham said. "When I came to work less than 500 days ago, this engine was on a computer screen. There were no hard parts for it. A lot of people in Dodge engineering and a lot of Dodge teams worked hard to make this a reality.

"Our own people worked hard with the engine shop running 24 hours a day. The car shop, 18 or 20 hours a day. Mike (crew chief Ford) stayed on top of detail, and the guys at the shop supported him and it paid off. Hopefully it'll pay off again."

-Ray Cooper

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Jerry Nadeau , Casey Atwood , Stacy Compton , Ray Evernham , Felix Sabates
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Bill Davis Racing