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Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

Dark days for Dodge over in NASCAR

September 6, 2001

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Whether it was a rule change or just hard work, Dodges are making their mark at the top of the NASCAR circuit for the first time since the heyday of Richard Petty.

It took two-thirds of the Winston Cup season for a new Intrepid to find the winner's circle. Now, after two victories in the last three races, those who decided to go with the automaker in its return after 16 years are feeling pretty good about it.

"We've had confidence in our decision all along," said car owner Bill Davis. "We really have, even when we thought we were struggling somewhere."

For Davis, the struggle ended Sunday, when driver Ward Burton won the Southern 500. Now, after that victory and Sterling's Marlin's win two weeks earlier in Michigan, the Dodge Boys will be looking for another Saturday night in Richmond, Va.

But it had been a long summer for the Dodge teams until NASCAR approved a 2-inch extension last month to the front air dams of the Intrepids. The aerodynamic change has made the car far more competitive.

In the four races immediately preceding the Brickyard 400, Dodges had only four top-10 finishes. Since then, Dodge teams have notched 10 top-10s at four oval tracks Indianapolis, Michigan, Bristol and Darlington.

Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood qualified 2-3 for the Brickyard on Aug. 5, and Marlin finished second. Elliott, Dave Blaney and Atwood were third, sixth and 10th respectively behind Marlin in Michigan. Then there were as many Dodges as Fords six in the top 21 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Elliott's fifth-place finish Sunday at Darlington Raceway gave the new Dodge two of the top five spots, something the automaker had already made a habit of doing while taking control of the NASCAR truck series.

But it wasn't just the front air dam, insists Tommy Baldwin, Burton's crew chief.

"I think right before they made the rule change our program started to pick up a little bit," Baldwin said. "The rule change probably helped us a little bit on our aero balance."

Burton said Baldwin decided about two weeks ago to bring the best race car from the shop each week.

"We're not going to compromise with aero or this or that," Burton said. "I'm going to bring the best I've got."

He certainly had it Sunday.

Burton hit the wall in qualifying and needed a provisional to start 37th. But his car rocketed to the front early, gaining 20 positions in the first 30 laps. Whenever pit position cost him the lead, Burton would sweep to the front past his rivals.

But this being NASCAR, not everyone is pleased with the new aero package for the Dodges.

"You're surprised?" Ford driver Dale Jarrett said last month at Indianapolis when asked about Intrepids starting to run up front. "Imagine that."

Before Marlin broke through at Michigan, the late Neil Bonnett was the last to bring Dodge success when he won in Ontario, Calif., in 1977.

Eight seasons without a victory got the automaker which often had the best cars when Petty was ruling the circuit in Chrysler products in the 1960s and '70s out of NASCAR.

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