by Lawrence A. Cole
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The second week of NASCAR racing was punctuated by the death of Dale Earnhardt the week before at Daytona. Dodge driver Sterling Marlin was being vilified as the reason that Earnhardt had lost his life in the turn 4 crash, and was receiving death threats. Security was placed at his house and shop, and even accompanied him to Earnhardt's funeral. The truth of the matter was Marlin was not the reason for the crash. Ironically, the evidence was in the in-car camera that was in Earnhardt's car that took you on his last ride.
On the final lap of the Daytona 500, Marlin dove under Earnhardt's car. Earnhardt had blocked this maneuver for the last 4 laps of the race. Earnhardt knew that should Marlin get by him, his team cars that were running one and two were in jeopardy of losing the race, as Marlin had shown all race long that he could move to the front. The car of Kenny Schrader had moved to the outside of Earnhardt, and they went into the fourth turn 3 wide.
From the inside camera, Earnhardt's car is clearly shown moving down the track as evidenced by the yellow inside track line. His car moved down just enough to hit the car of Marlin who was on the inside. The contact broke both cars loose, and while Marlin was able to correct his car as it started to veer to the left, Earnhardt's car, after veering also left, and with him trying to correct the car to the right, shot up the embankment, collecting Schrader's car, and hitting the wall. Its was discovered later that a lap belt had failed for reasons unknown, and that, coupled with the open face helmet that was Earnhardt's trademark, led to his death.
Outside views of the three cars heading into the turn, and throughout the turn, show Marlin's car never changing its line. Yet many people failed to see what was evident, and in their hurt and sorrow, made Marlin the target of their anger. It was only after Dale's son came out and called the charges against Marlin ridiculous, that the outcry started to settle down. But it was still Marlin that carried the burden of Earnhardt's death too many as week two of Winston Cup racing got underway.
For Dodge, this was another test of their return to racing. The Intrepid R/T had been shown to be fast on the large superspeedway of Daytona, but how would it fare on a track requiring downforce, rather then sleekness. Sadly, they were to show their lack of it.
Practice times were down for all the Dodges, and the best they could qualify was Ward Burton's 11 place start, and Kyle Petty even failed to qualify for the event. With the race coming up, it was obvious Dodge was in trouble.
With rain causing the race to be postponed until Monday, Dodge found itself in the lead for the one of the few times when Dodge driver Stacy Compton didn't pit, and led the race for 6 laps under caution. Ward Burton showed some early strength for Dodge, but a botched pit stop all but put him out of the running for the win. Elliott continued his dismal race performance, falling and running around 20th the entire race, and finally finishing 23rd. Young guns Atwood and Jones never was a factor, nor was Andretti.
Surprisingly, former sprint car driver Dave Blaney ran consistently in the top 10 with his Intrepid R/T, as did Marlin, who after starting in the 26th starting spot, worked his way to the top 10, where he stayed for most of the race with Blaney. But while the Dodges were to run in the top 10, it was obvious that Dodge had nothing for the rest of the field at Rockingham. The race was dominated by the Chevys, who at one time, were claiming the top 3 spots for most of the race. Only later, when the Pontiacs came alive, was their dominance broken. Still, it was a Chevrolet to cross the finish line 1st and 3rd, even if the 3rd place car was later to have been found in violation of the NASCAR height rule. On a brighter note, only the Dodge of Stacy Compton suffered any type of engine failure, erupting in a huge cloud of smoke late in the race. This is only the second engine failure of the year, and is a positive sign that the Dodge engine has the durability to race.
Overall Weekend Rating: C
The R/T showed it still needs some work on tracks where downforce is a key to success. Poor pit work by Burton's car resulted in arguably the fastest Dodge, having to use up the car and tires to try and get back to the front. The second straight poor showing of Elliott disappointed many. Dodge could only lead laps under caution, with the exception of Marlin and Jones, who led a lap during pit stops, not something that the men and women at Dodge wanted to see. On the positive side, Dodge engines showed that they could last in a non-restrictor plate race.
Failed to Qualify:
Dodge Laps Led
Week 3 of the young NASCAR Winston Cup series got under way flying the race sponsorship of UAW-Daimler Chrysler. With Vegas being the track that every corporate sponsor of NASCAR likes to use as its showcase of their sponsored cars, Chrysler and its people were in full attendance. Let's hope they had better luck at the gaming tables then they did on the track.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is another downforce track, albeit not as bad as Rockingham. Once again, Dodge showed its problem with these types of tracks, and could qualify no higher then Sterling Marlin's 8th. Ward Burton was the second fastest of the Dodge's, picking up the 13th spot. Bill Elliott could do no better then 16th, and Dave Blaney 17th and Casey Atwood in 18th. Rounding out the Dodge qualifying was Stacy Compton 26th, Jason Leffler 30th, and John Andretti and Buckshot Jones using provisionals to get into the race, starting 38 and 43 respectively. For the second race in a row, Kyle Petty failed to make the field.
Dodge and its PR people however had a good day during Saturday's happy hour, when rookie Casey Atwood had the fastest practice time. Perhaps Dodge should talk to those same PR people, as practice and the actual race are two entirely different things. It's why it's called "practice." Yet the Dodge racing site quickly poured out an online story touting their practice session.
The race dawned with cool temperatures and overcast skies, something that actually played into the favor of Dodge. With the cooler temperatures, and falling during the race, Dodge cars could use more tape on their grills, creating more downforce for the car, without worries of overheating. This would turn out to be Dodge's saving grace.
Ward Burton was the early Dodge threat, but that was taken care of quickly after his first pit stop, which was atrocious. For the second week in a row, the Bill Davis team had major problems doing routine pit work, and Burton, who came in running in the top 10, left pit row, the last of the lead lap cars. Ironically, it was removing a spring rubber on the right rear that caused the long pit stop, and it was a double whammy, as it was the absolute wrong solution to the car's problem. As Burton was to later say, "When we started the race we were a little loose and Tommy adjusted for that, but we went to far. The changes made the car extremely tight and we eventually got ourselves close to the set-up we had in it at the start of the race. We got a little better, but never good enough to contend for the win." That was a major understatement, with Burton finishing a lap down in 21st.
One car that made a change that seemed to work was Bill Elliott, and it was a change not by design. After his car was involved in a minor skirmish, the #9 started to move through the field heading to the front. Also hanging around making a race of it, was Sterling Marlin, Dodge's best driver at this point. Just prior to the halfway point of the race, Elliott stormed into first place, with Marlin running 6th. The boys in the Dodge suite were now having something to cheer about.
A few laps later, Dodge was running one and two, with Marlin now showing some strength. A caution flag however would ruin Elliott's day. After the pit stops, and with Elliott in the 5th spot, the cars were all grouped at the restart. Unfortunately for Elliott, fellow Dodge driver Jason Leffler, who was lapped, squeezed Elliott into the wall. From that point on, Elliott's car was never again in contention, finishing 14th after showing show promise. Said Elliott, "Unfortunately I got together with the 01, he turned up on me in the middle of the back straightaway, just about put us both into the wall. We had a decent day, it wasn't all bad. We had a decent run going there in the middle, we just couldn't overcome it. Everything that happened all happened in the last 75 laps."
Now the hopes for a Dodge win were once again in the hands of Sterling Marlin's Silver Bullet Dodge. And for awhile, it looked like Dodge might have made it all the way back to the top with its first win after its return to NASCAR. Then the questionable move of the day occurred. My Grandfather was fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Perhaps someone should have told that to Marlin.
After Marlin had a long run on his tires, Jeff Gordon started to slowly reel him in, and finally passed him. With the last pit stop being made late in the race under green, Marlin, or his crew chief, decided to make a track bar adjustment as Marlin was complaining of the car being a "little tight." It was the gamble for the race if it worked.
Marlin's lap times never came close to the times that he was posting prior to the pit stop, and in fact, were slower then the lap times he was turning on worn tires. Had he left the setup alone, his speeds that he was running before the tires faded would have easily beaten the lap speeds turned by Gordon after his last pit stop. In fact, Marlin couldn't even reel in the Dale Jarrett car, which had not even come close to running with Marlin all race long. The best Marlin could do was to hold onto 3rd, which he did, and was probably thankful that the race wasn't about 10 laps longer, as he would have lost that spot.
Overall Weekend Rating: C
Yes, Sterling Marlin had a shot for the first Dodge victory since 1977. And his 3rd place finish vaulted him into the Winston Cup points lead, the first Dodge driver to lead the points since Richard Petty in 1975. And yes, Elliott did show some strength during the race, the first time this season. But even with all this to the plus, it was hard pressed to raise this weekend from a D.
Dodge has some serious problems right now. Too many of its cars are running in the back, not up front, or even in the middle.
Kevin Harvick, who was brought up from the Busch series to replace Dale Earnhardt after his death at Daytona, is hammering Casey Atwood in the rookie of the year race. Harvick finished in 8th position, while Atwood finished a dismal 24th. This means that either the Chevrolets of DEI are much superior to any Dodge, or that Atwood is living up to my expectations, and not those of Ray Evernham.
Elliott was suppose to lead the Dodge charge, but hasn't shown any real muscle all year long, his leading for 11 laps of this race not withstanding. Bill Davis's racing team of Burton and Blaney show flashes of running well, but Davis cannot be happy with the pit crew or crew chief right now, especially that of Ward Burton's car.
Petty’s cars are, for lack of a better word or phrase, out to lunch. John Andretti and Buckshot Jones deserve far better then Petty has given them. And Kyle should turn the reins of his car over to someone else. There are a lot of good drivers looking for a ride, or he could even look to the Busch or Craftsman Truck series. Suggestions here would be Dennis Setzer from the truck series or Jeff Purvis from the Busch series. And Melling still hasn't given Compton the car that he deserves. The move to put Jason Leffler in the second Ganassi car was questionable when done, and even more so seeing his performance. When two cars, owned and prepared by the same team, run that far apart as in the case of Marlin and Leffler, the obvious difference is the driver. Once again, I suggest a driver change quickly, groom Leffler a bit more elsewhere, and save his chance for running for rookie of the year next year or the year after.
Next Race: Atlanta Motor Speedway, March 11, 2001
Several drivers have shown to be strong at Atlanta. John Andretti has always shown strength at Atlanta, given any breaks and some decent equipment. Ward Burton was running away with the race last year, until a late race caution bunched up the field. And Dave Blaney had his best start of the 2000 season at the second race at Atlanta. It's also the home track of Elliott, and he has always run well there, but has been hampered since the track was reconfigured. The aero package of the Intrepid is still the concern here, as Atlanta is another one of those downforce tracks. The Intrepid may make up for it however as the banking and size of Atlanta tends to offset some downforce with a need for sleekness, which the Intrepid R/T has. Compton could surprise here and run decent. Everyone else will be watching from the back of the field.
Failed to Qualify:
Kyle Petty, # 45, Dodge/Sprint
Dodge Laps Led
Marlin — 34
Elliott - 11
Location: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Track: 1.54 miles, banking 24 degrees
For Dodge, the Cracker Barrel 500 should have been named the Monkey Barrel 500, as that is how they wound up looking like, a barrel full of monkeys.
The Dodge teams went in to this race with high expectations. Points leader Sterling Marlin had always run well at Atlanta. Bill Elliott is tied with the most wins of all the active drivers at Atlanta. Dave Blaney had his best runs last year at Atlanta. And even Casey Atwood had driven well at this track in his Busch car. And surely John Andretti would start to show signs of life on one of his best tracks. And everyone KNEW that Atlanta owed one to Ward Burton who ran so strong a year ago only to watch victory get snatched away in the last laps.
With expectations come heartbreak, and this was the weekend for them.
For starters, Casey Atwood, who continues to live up to my expectations, failed to qualify for the event by a large margin. The most highly touted rookie to start the season, Atwood has done little or nothing to prove that he deserves the ride in the 19 car. It's said that a first class racing team needs 4-8 million dollars a year to run for the championship. Dodge is footing the bill for Evernham's endevor. For that kind of money, Dodge certainly deserves better then they are getting from Atwood.
Sterling Marlin ran strong all race, only to fall out with a blown motor late in the race. Marlin had nothing really for the win, but it looked like another top 5, or worse case, top 10 finish looming for him. Dodge racing site would want you to believe that a radiator hose was leaking, causing the engine to overheat and blow. Yet, strangely enough, with laps winding down, and a caution flag flying, everyone pitted except for Marlin and Dale Jarrett. A few laps later, under green, the engine of Marlin erupted in a blaze of glory. If indeed there was a radiator hose leak, the temp would have been climbing, and it would seem that Marlin would have pitted to try and cool it down. The failure of him to do so would indicate that it came as a surprise to him, something that a leaky radiator hose would not have done.
John Andretti moved quietly up the field, only to fade back as the race wore on. Stacy Compton continued to struggle with the Melling team efforts. Ward Burton, never was a factor all race long. Bill Elliott started towards the front, and persisted on working his way backwards. Kyle Petty finally qualified again, and ran, well, as Kyle has the past few years, poorly. And Leffler showed why he should still be in Busch, getting more driving time.
The biggest heartbreak though was saved for Dave Blaney. Blaney started the race running in the top ten, then finally decided to let his R/T loose. He quickly passed everyone, including race leader Jeff Gordon. Clearly the class of the field, Blaney pulled away and started to hide from everyone. After leading only 4 laps in his entire Winston Cup career, Blaney lead the field for 44 laps. Then disaster struck.
Why people insist on living up to my expectations, I have no idea. But Blaney's pit crew certainly lived up to my advance billing, and taking lessons from Ward Burton's crew, failed to put all the lug nuts on the left rear of Blaney's car after a caution flag stop. Blaney, noticing a vibration, had to pit again, but it was too late. The loose lug nuts worked the drive plate so hard, that it sheered off, and Blaney found his left rear tire running down the track without him, while Fox broadcaster Darrell Waltrip sang "You took a fine time to leave me loose wheel". Dubbed by the race announcers as the "heartbreak of the race", Blaney sat in his car impassively while his chagrin pit crew worked on his car in the garage area.
Overall Weekend Rating: D
The Dodge boys could not be happy with this race result. In fact, their web site was rather terse in talking about the recent effort. Too many Dodges continue to be the back markers. Marlin dropped down in the points race, and Atwood watched the race from the infield. Mechanical woes struck many teams, and Ward Burton and Dave Blaney should sue their pit crews for non-support. On the upside of the weekend, Blaney may have showed his coming of age in a Winston Cup car, so all wasn't lost.
Name, number, sponsors, ending position, starting position, ending status:
Ward Burton, #22, Dodge/Caterpillar 11th Started 14th Running
John Andretti, # 43, Dodge/Cheerio's 14th Started 20th Running
Bill Elliott, # 9, Dodge/Dodge Dealers 16th Started 24th Running
Buckshot Jones, # 44, Dodge/Georgia Pacific 19th Started 16th Running
Stacy Compton, # 92, Dodge/Kodiak/Cougar 24th Started 28th Running
Jason Leffler, # 01, Dodge/No Sponsor 32nd Started 22nd Running
Dave Blaney, # 93, Dodge/Amoco 34th Started 7th Running
Sterling Marlin, #40, Dodge/Coors Light 35th Started 12th Engine
Kyle Petty, #45, Dodge, Sprint 42nd Started 18th Engine
Failed to Qualify:
Casey Atwood, # 19, Dodge/Dodge Dealers
Dodge Laps Led
Leffler — 1
Marlin - 2
Blaney — 68
Location: Darlington Raceway
Track: 1.366 miles, banking 25 degrees turns 1 and 2, 23 degrees turns 3 and 4
With the bitter weekend at Atlanta by the wayside, the Dodge teams headed for Darlington, home of the "Lady in Black." Would Dodge rebound or fall even deeper into despair was the question of the weekend. And with Dodge having its name as race sponsor, it was clear that they needed a strong showing this week.
And a strong showing they got.
With qualifying washed out, all the Dodge teams ended up making the race based on last year's owners points, this year's owners points, attempts to qualify this year, and the placement of the stars at the seventh rising of the moon. Kyle Petty and Casey Atwood were breathing sighs of relief as they had enough of whatever NASCAR uses to make the field. It also allowed Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott to start to the front of the field, although Elliott didn't take advantage of that fact.
Sterling Marlin once again proved he is the biggest threat in a Dodge this year, as he was a factor all race long. Know as a superstitious person, Marlin once again ran the same car, the third week in a row, while others, like Ward Burton, were on their 5th car in 5 races. Once again, a questionable late caution flag change on his car was made, but his performance launched him backed into a second place tie in the point's championship.
Elliott continued his mark of moving up front, then falling back. As the race went on, Elliott went further and further back, and was probably glad the flag fell when it did. The surprise of the race was John Andretti, who steadily worked his way through the field, and got his first top 10 finish of the year. Jason Leffler even ran well the first half of the race, hanging in the top 20 until he fell off the pace. Ward Burton had a strong run in his R/T, and Dave Blaney, although not as strong as he was the week before at Atlanta, ran a steady race all day. Stacy Compton showed that he still has some learning to do, crashing early in the race while trying to get by fellow Dodge driver Leffler.
Overall Weekend Rating: B-
With another strong run by Marlin, coupled with the performance of Andretti, Dodge had to be happy with the overall weekend. For the first time, 4 Dodge R/Ts ran strong all day. Burton's and Blaney's final finishing positions belie the strength they had.
Ford drivers continued to sing the blues even though the race saw a Ford win for the first time in the 2001 season, breaking the Chevrolet stranglehold that they had held all year. And it's Ford driver Dale Jarrett who leads the points chase.
Dodge Laps Led
Marlin - 13
Location: Bristol Speedway
Track: .533 miles, banking 36 degrees
With a strong performance at Darlington the week before, Dodge motored into the bullring of Bristol with high expectations, and their ears ringing as Ford continued to complain about "slowing" the winless Dodges.
Qualifying saw Mark Martin in the Viagra Ford claiming the top spot, but Dodge driver Sterling Marlin, second to last to qualify, put his Intrepid R/T on the outside pole. Kyle Petty, surprised everyone, qualifying 7th. But the Dodge’s weren't done yet. Dave Blaney qualified 8th, John Andretti turned the 10th fastest time with his Cheerio’s Dodge, Bill Elliott claimed the 12th spot with his Dodge Dealers Dodge, and even young gun Atwood qualified 16th. On the other end of the scale, Stacy Compton about took out the wall on his qualifying run, and started 41st, and Jason Leffler, who showed little or no faith in his ability to qualify in a pre qualifying interview, did just that, making him the only Dodge not to start the race.
Early race action saw the Marlin running up front, with Petty holding onto the top 10. Blaney in the meanwhile was moving backward, along with Elliott. As the race progressed, Petty would start to slide with electrical problems being the reported reason. Andretti moved slowly forward, overtaking Marlin for the top Dodge. Compton, after falling a lap down after a loose lug nut brought them into pit row for an unscheduled pit stop, fought this way back onto the lead lap. Buckshot Jones, who was running in the top 20, got turned around by Jimmy Spencer’s Ford, and hit the wall, ending a good run for him.
With laps closing down, the Dodge of Andretti was posed to make a run for the win, but a restart cost him any chance of victory, as a lapped car on the inside of him on the restart, shot up into Andretti, forcing him to tap the wall. This altercation caused his car to tighten up, and Andretti was forced to finish the race in second, the highest finish for Dodge since their return to NASCAR. Ward Burton used good pit strategy with a 2 tire change to gain track position, and held onto his car after being hit late in the race by Jeff Gordon, and finished 5th. Compton, after being a lap down, came home 11th, and Marlin ended up finishing 12th, giving Dodge 4 cars in the top 12.
The weekend’s performance however was dampened, when a post race inspection showed that Andretti’s car failed to meet the minimum height requirement, and was later fined $20,000.
Overall Weekend Rating: B+
With another strong run by Marlin, coupled with the performance of Andretti, Compton and Burton, the Dodge boys held their heads high after Bristol. For the first time, 4 Dodge R/T’s finished in the top 12. Ford drivers continued to sing the blues even though the race saw a Ford win for the second time in the 2001 season, and shortly there after, a rule change was announced for the April Talladega race, which in effect, slowed the Dodge’s and made the Ford’s faster. (See Deju-Vu all Over Again)
Failed to Qualify:
Jason Leffler, # 01, Dodge/Cingular
Dodge Laps Led
Marlin - 81
Andretti - 48
The contents of this page are copyright © 2001 by Lawrence A. Cole All rights reserved. (The copyright notice following reflects the status of header and footer content).
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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