by Lawrence A. Cole
Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence A. Cole. All rights reserved. Printed by permission. January 2001.
Richard Petty's Superbird circling Daytona. The roar of the 426 Hemi engine as it kicked into life. Battles of Ford/Mercury/Dodge/Plymouth headlining the racing magazines. Fights in the stands as to what brand was better. T-shirts emblazoned with names and cars. Battles with NASCAR .
As the little girl said, "They're back...."
Well, sort of.
The days of the Hemi are gone. But Dodge has returned to Winston Cup Racing. And with it, all the glory of the past is being laid on the table. And it appears a very shaky table at that right now.
When it was announced in 1999 that Dodge was returning to Winston Cup racing, a cry of joy from the MoPar camp could be heard. After nearly 25 years absent, Dodge was carrying their flag back into racing. To many, it was obvious that they would return after they started to heavily invest into NASCAR Craftsman Truck racing. From a small 2-team effort at the beginning, it grew into a heavily financed 6-truck team in 2000. Richard Petty took up the Dodge effort in the truck series, and is doing so once again in the W/C series. Ray Evernham, he of Jeff Gordon fame, was hired by Chrysler to lead up a full-blown W/C program. Bill Elliott was quickly signed on to give a "big name" driver to this new effort. But after all this, some things remain the same. And some, well, they just got different.
Dodge took a unique approach to their truck-racing program. One it hopes to carry over into their W/C program. Unlike Ford or Chevy backed teams, Dodge pooled their resources of information gained from each truck/driver team. Part of the requirement to get Dodge's backing was that you agreed to share all information you learned between the other Dodge teams. It didn't matter if you liked them or not. Your information from testing, racing, and development were all thrown into one pot, and then Dodge took this information, and tried to extract from it, the best of each group. To this end, Dodge was successful, bringing its program from a laughing stock when it first entered the Craftsmen Truck series, to capturing 11 poles for races in 2000 (at one point of the season, they sat on the pole for 6 consecutive races), and winning 6 races (3 in a row streak). But along the way, Dodge remembered why it left NASCAR to begin with. Rule changes were constant by NASCAR as they tried to head off the Dodge assault. Chevy introduced its new Silverado and found it to be a pig on the track until NASCAR "made" it better through rule changes. Dodge was hit with restriction after restriction, ignoring the basic concept that the Dodge's might be faster only because of their approach to sharing the information with all its teams. And as the year wore down, Dodge continued to slip back into the field, over compensated by the dominant arm of NASCAR. Lost in NASCAR's attempt to slow the Dodge was that fact that Jack Rouch used his W/C information to lead an all out assault on the points race, and to dominate the season as Dodge fell further and further behind. And as the Dodge drivers complained to NASCAR's deaf ears, Rouch made a mockery out of the season.
Does this all sound familiar?
Remember 1965 when Dodge sat out the season because the Hemi was banned?
Or how about the short life of the Daytona/Superbird? Banished to being only able to race with a small block engine. Or the restrictor plate changes made to hold the Hemi back. And the final insult, the change from a big block engine to a small block, only so that GM cars could finally compete.
Much to the credit of Ford, they found the Chrysler Hemi engine a challenge to over come, and gave it the best compliment it could, when it introduced its 427 "Semi-Hemi" engine. Then, it upped the ante by making the dual overhead cam 427 "Semi-Hemi", which resulted in Chrysler designing and submitting to NASCAR, a 426 dual overhead cam Hemi. To this NASCAR responded with a "Don't even think about It." statement, and promptly pulled the 427 Ford dual overhead cam engine off of its approved list. Ford and Chrysler both helped to build cars that were more aerodynamic, and helped push the development of parts that were to benefit the average car owner in the long run. But the gas crisis, mountings fiscal pressures, and finally disgust with NASCAR, prompted Chrysler to pull out of NASCAR racing after the 1977 season.
Enter "The New Dodge", year 2001.
For the new charge into NASCAR, Dodge has won approval of the Dodge Intrepid R/T, along with a completely new V-8 engine. The Intrepid, long a staple of the Dodge garage, was used as the best match-up to the wheelbase requirements of NASCAR. Ironically, it was because of Ford that the window opened for Dodge. When Ford decided to pull its Thunderbird for a complete overall, it submitted to NASCAR the Ford Taurus. This broke all of the current NASCAR rules of the car having to be a rear wheel drive, V-8 engine car. Faced with only having GM brand cars on the racetrack, NASCAR was forced to accept the Taurus. (While some talk of using the Lincoln was bantered about, Ford was not about to let its luxury car become a super speedway racecar.) When NASCAR did this, their reasoning for not allowing the Chrysler LeBaron to race was thrown out the window. It was only a matter of time then before Dodge would return to the foray. And they did. And the results, well they were rather typical of the Dodge / NASCAR relationship. First the car had to pass. Several versions were submitted to NASCAR before they approved the template for the R/T. Now the big hurdle began, and that was the engine. Dodge decided not to use the engine that was being used in its truck programs, as the rules between the two divisions were not close enough for them to think the truck engine would perform the way they needed it to. In June of 2000, Dodge still did not have approved pieces for its engines. In fact, NASCAR was up to its usual tricks when they rejected heads submitted by Dodge for approval. The reason? They performed too well. On September 27, Dodge finally submitted for "final" approval, the engine to NASCAR, and it was approved on November 6, 2000. The engine, dubbed by Dodge as the R5-P7, is an open decked, deep skirt engine. Its displacement is the mandatory 358 cubic inches. The block, heads, and intake are all new design. A total of 5 teams and 10 drivers have signed up to race the new Dodge. For some, it's the chance of a lifetime. For others, a hope that the sharing approach of Dodge will allow them a chance to finally win.
Any comparison of the W/C cars of today to those of yesterday needs to be addressed at this point. When Chrysler was active in W/C racing, the rules were much different then today. Back then, if you raced a Dodge or Plymouth, the car was basically a racing version of the same thing you drove on the highway. Chrysler cars used torsion bars and leaf springs. The chassis was basically the same as your average street car. Today's cars are not of that type. Look underneath the sheet metal of any W/C car, and you find basically all the same chassis. What defines a car now is its sheet metal and engine. So throw chassis development out of the window. As for the bodies, well, I have yet to see a W/C car that actually LOOKED like its street counter-part. So what we are now left with is the engine manufacture. Add the whim of NASCAR, and any serious debating of brand versus brand will carry that qualifier.
What does the future hold for Dodge this year? Early results indicate they are in a lot of trouble, and that expectations should be held to a minimum. Like, hope to qualify.
The cars made their debut this week at Daytona in preparation for this year Daytona 500, when 10 days were set aside for Ford, GM and Dodge teams to test. While Dodge's racing site (http://www.4adodge.com/racing/index.html) claim that the cars proved to be "equal" to that of Ford, Chevrolet, and Pontiac, two days of Dodge's testing at Daytona would refute that. Times showed the Dodge teams to be at least 1.5 miles an hour slower then the other 3 makes. At Daytona, that is an eternity. The top Ford was clocked at 182.271, Chevrolet at 182.169 and Pontiac at 182.065. The top Dodge, driven by Stacy Compton was 180.821.Drivers are trying to laud the results at the same time as they scramble to figure out why they are so slow. Engine reliability at this point has been successful, with only one team experiencing any type of engine related failure. The question now being raised is did NASCAR shortchange Dodge in the engine department? Is the body competitive for super speedway use? Will NASCAR after seeing these results, change some body parts to give the car more or less downforce, depending on which way the problem actually lies?
These questions will probably be answered in a couple of weeks when Dodge makes another test at Talladega. If the car hasn't found some muscle by then, Dodge might find itself in a position it is not used to in Winston Cup racing. And that is playing catch up. Said driver Bill Elliott, who leads the Dodge paraden, "Ray (Evernham) and them is gonna have to go home and sift through a lot of information." Said John Andretti, driver of the Petty #43 Dodge, "If collectively our group isn't fast enough maybe something's wrong and we need to address the issue. We're looking right now." Still unknown at this point is the Dodge's drafting ability. With so much concern over individual speed, Dodge teams deferred all draft testing. On a track such as Daytona, that may have been a mistake by all the teams. With all the hype that Dodge has put into its return to NASCAR Winston Cup Racing, you can bet that the Dodge boys are not sleeping well tonight.
To be continued... (click here for part 2)
Evernham Motorsports, with Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood; Bill Davis Racing with Ward Burton and Dave Blaney; Petty Enterprises with Kyle Petty, John Andretti and Buckshot Jones; Melling Racing with Stacy Compton; and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates with Sterling Marlin.
The 52 Winston Cup drivers who posted speeds over the 10-day period were:
1. Kenseth/Ford 49.377 seconds, 182.271 mph;
2. Park/Chevrolet 49.399/182.190;
3. Stewart/Pontiac 49.433/182.065;
4. Jeff Gordon/Chevrolet 49.570/181.561;
5. Ricky Craven/Ford 49.584/181.510;
6. Skinner/Chevrolet 49.602/181.444;
7. Bobby Labonte/Pontiac 49.705/181.068;
8. Michael Waltrip/Chevrolet 49.715/181.032;
9. Kenny Wallace/Pontiac 49.718/181.021;
10. Terry Labonte/Chevrolet 49.732/180.970;
11. Mark Martin/Ford 49.744/180.926;
12. Bobby Hamilton/Chevrolet 49.750/180.905;
13. Ken Schrader/Pontiac 49.763/180.857;
14. Compton/Dodge 49.773/180.821;
15. Dave Marcis/Chevrolet 49.782/180.788;
16. Dale Earnhardt Jr./Chevrolet 49.788/180.766;
17. Robby Gordon/Chevrolet 49.826/180.629;
18. Dave Blaney/Dodge 49.833 180.603;
19. Elliott/Dodge 49.841/180.574;
20. Greg Sacks/Dodge 49.875/180.451;
21. Pressley/Ford 49.879/180.437;
22. Nadeau/Chevrolet 49.881/180.429;
23. Dale Earnhardt/Chevrolet 49.926/180.267;
24. Derrike Cope/Pontiac 49.953/180.169;
25. Jeff Burton/Ford 49.965/180.126;
26. Jarrett/Ford 49.991/180.032;
27. Ricky Rudd/Ford 49.996/180.014;
28. Elliott Sadler/Ford 50.022/179.921;
29. Jeremy Mayfield/Ford 50.027/179.903;
30. Johnny Benson/Pontiac 50.028/179.759;
31. Kurt Busch/Ford 50.044/179.842;
32. Brett Bodine/Ford 50.062/179.777;
33. R. Wallace/Ford 50.161/179.422;
34. Andretti/Dodge 50.174/179.376;
35. Marlin/Dodge 50.186/179.333;
36. Rick Mast/Chevrolet 50.204/179.269;
37. Andy Houston/Ford 50.244/179.126;
38. Joe Nemechek/Chevrolet 50.254/179.090;
39. Jeff Purvis/Ford 50.266/179.047;
40. Jimmy Spencer/Ford 50.280/178.998;
41. Leffler/Dodge 50.310/178.891;
42. Kyle Petty/Dodge 50.364/178.699;
43. Casey Atwood/Dodge 50.404/178.557;
44. Mike Wallace/Ford 50.426/178.479;
45. Ron Hornaday/Pontiac 50.429/178.469;
46. Buckshot Jones/Dodge 50.446/178.409;
47. Hut Stricklin/Ford 50.489/178.257;
48. W. Burton/Dodge 50.560/178.006;
49. Wally Dallenbach/Ford 50.593/177.890;
50. Todd Bodine/Ford 50.716/177.459;
51. Norm Benning/Chevrolet 51.899/173.414;
52. Long/Ford 52.000/173.077.
Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "
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