by Lawrence A. Cole - Copyright © February 2001 by Lawrence A. Cole. Printed by permission.
After testing at Daytona, Dodge race teams shook their collective heads. Their fastest entry was 2nd year driver Stacy Compton, who was barely able to crack the top twenty. The major Dodge hopes, Bill Elliott and Ward Burton were mired in the bottom of the practice times. Ray Evernham, leader of the Dodge charge back into NASCAR, immediately ordered his cars to Talladega for more testing.
The times and speeds were still not there.
Meanwhile, talks in the various other camps were mixed. Some teams felt that Dodge wasn’t showing everything it had. Others suggested that Dodge just didn’t have the body style to compete. Rumors ran rampart. Dodge was already being bashed, when a Ford driver commented that Dodge was using Ford trunk, roof, and hoods on its cars. Shot back Dodge, let them try to put our roofs, trunks, and hoods on their cars and see if they fit. Many trackside observers did feel the Intrepid R/T had a Taurus like look to it. Then again, does any street car look like its race counterpart?
Comments that Evernham’s choice of Bill Elliott was a poor one were suggested. That Elliott was past his racing prime, and that there were many other drivers out there that would have been a better choice to lead the Dodge charge.
Meanwhile, back at Chrysler/Daimler, major dollars were being spent on commercials geared around the return of Dodge to NASCAR racing. Super Bowl Sunday brought us the first look. A 2-week blitz leading up to the Daytona 500 was planned. An independent study by a RI marketing firm had indicated that 34% of the people surveyed claimed they would be more likely to buy a Dodge if they were to return to NASCAR racing. The Dodge Motor Racing web site was offering Daytona ticket packages to the people who had signed up for membership to their site. Dodge teams were sent to Rockingham to test, as that would be the second stop on the NASCAR schedule.
The times and speeds were still not there, even at the shorter Rockingham.
Evernham set modest Daytona qualifying goals for his two team drivers. His goal for qualifying with Elliott was a top 10. For rookie Casey Atwood, a top 25 time would be his aim. Dodge engineers flew back and forth to the Evernham shops, working, studying, and suggesting new ideas. Tests were scheduled back in the wind tunnels. Qualifying weekend was approaching rapidly.
The times and speeds were still not there.
Comments continued about the Dodge program in the pit area. The financial plight of Dodge was now being focused on. Questions abound whether Dodge would pull the plug on its new racing program. Those who questioned the return of Dodge had an "I told you so" attitude. Even some of the Dodge drivers wondered out loud if the speed would be found. Evernham was publicly stating that he was setting modest goals for Daytona. This from a man who was always known to strive for perfection.
The clock was ticking, and no word was coming from the Dodge camps as to what qualifying would bring. The teams started to arrive at Daytona. February 10th was quickly approaching. Teams unloaded, and hit the tracks on Friday, the 9th , for the first test sessions since January. Dodge followers knew this was D-Day for Dodge.
The times and speeds were suddenly there.
Quickly, Stacy Compton had his Dodge R/T into the 4th fastest time of the morning session. Eyebrows were raising as Ward Burton went out in his R/T and was among the top 10. Elliott was getting faster. All the Dodge teams seemed to be climbing up the speed charts. An air of optimism now surrounded the Dodge camp. Perhaps things weren't going to be so bad after all. Still, the money was placed on Dodge making a respectable showing at best now. Nothing more was expected from this group of upstarts making their return after nearly 2 decades away from NASCAR. Still, this was a far cry from where the Dodge teams stood less then a month ago when they tested.
Qualifying day brought about a new TV partner, Fox. Gone were ESPN and CBS. Early morning practice sessions were bringing no new surprises. Teams that were fast Friday were again fast on Saturday. Many believed that Ford Taurus driver Dale Jarrett would claim the pole. Fords had been fast in practice, even back in January. Several of the Chevrolets had been quick. Pontiacs had tested well, and carried the banner of 2000 Winston Cup champion, Bobby Labonte. Young lions such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rookie of the Year in 2000, Matt Kenseth, were expected to make a run for the pole. And no one discounted a strong run by Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon, or Ricky Rudd. No one mentioned, or even thought about, a Dodge setting on the pole.
As the cars lined up for tech inspections prior to qualifying, all eyes were focused on Dodge. The company had spent a lot of time and money to get here. It was almost a year to the day that Dodge announced, at that very track, their intent to return to NASCAR. Ads were running. Dodge was sponsoring the TV coverage for the qualifying. A national audience would be watching. For Dodge, it was now "put up or shut up" time.
Let it now be known, and forever stated, that the record books will show, that on February 10, 2001, that the pole position for the 2001 Daytona 500, will be..
Bill Elliott, in a Dodge Intrepid R/T.
To be continued... (click here for part 1)
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