Dodge Inches Toward First Win

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An old saying has it that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and so it has gone for the Dodge contingency in its first year back in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

The first 21 races of the season have left the Dodge teams still searching for the manufacturer’s first victory in 2001, but Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway may have provided a sense of hope for the Intrepids.

For the first time since Michigan in early June, and only the third time all season (the other was at Daytona in February), three Dodges placed in the Top 10 in a race.

As usual, Sterling Marlin led the Dodge charge, finishing second behind winner Jeff Gordon. Ward Burton came home sixth, while Bill Elliott finished eighth.

The Brickyard 400 was the first race following a rules change by NASCAR that saw the governing body allow the Dodge teams to extend their front air dam an additional two inches in an attempt to give them more downforce.

The Dodges were solid in qualifying Saturday morning, with Elliott placing his No. 9 Intrepid second, and teammate Casey Atwood starting the race from the third position. It was Elliott’s best starting spot since he won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Despite the Dodge teams’ good fortune at Indy (John Andretti, who has struggled all season, also finished 14th), few in the Dodge camp were attributing their success to the rule change.

“It’s still too early to tell about the impact (of the rule change),” said Ray Evernham, who owns Dodges raced by Elliott and Atwood, and who spearheaded Dodge’s return to the Winston Cup Series. “We were just as good at Pocono last week. We haven’t really had a chance to work on it yet.”

“There wasn’t a huge difference with the rules change,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t that much easier to pass.”

“I don’t know,” Marlin said when asked if the rule change helped. “This is the same car we had at Michigan. We felt like we should have won the race at Michigan, but we had a third-place car there. We brought it here and ran second with it. So, until you do it back to back and just see what it does, I don’t know. I know the wind tunnel (test) says it gets more downforce up front. If that’s what it says, then that’s what it says.”

“I don’t know if it made a huge difference or was a big plus,” said Bill Davis, owner of the Intrepids driven by Burton and Dave Blaney. “We’ll have to learn more about it, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’re getting better. We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy deal. It was a big step. We’ve got all brand new cars. The second half of the season we’re going to run better.”

Burton is 17th in the Winston Cup standings and Blaney is mired in 28th.

Mike Ford, crew chief for Elliott’s Intrepid, said he believes the rule change did prove beneficial for the Dodges.

“(The rule change) helped because some of the Dodges performed well (Sunday) and we had three of them in the Top 10,” Ford said. “It’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it’s a sign of what’s to come.”

Marlin continued his strong run and consistent level of performance he’s had all season. With his runner-up finish, the driver of the No. 40 Intrepid moved past Tony Stewart into fourth place in the Winston Cup standings, 323 points behind leader Gordon.

It was Marlin’s sixth top-five finish of the season and his best result of the 2001 campaign. Still, Marlin said he and his team should have been to victory lane by now.

“It’s getting frustrating for us,” Marlin said. “We keep working harder. Last week we didn’t run too good. And in New Hampshire, it was terrible. We came here and tested, and it wasn’t real good. We just kept working on the car. We felt like we had a pretty good race car, and now it’s only a matter of time for us.”

Elliott’s team has shown major improvement the past few weeks. He has five top-10 finishes in his past eight races, including a fourth-place run at Pocono on July 29, to move into a tie for 15th in the Winston Cup standings.

“We’ve come a long way in the past few weeks and that’s what we’ve got to keep working on,” Elliott said.

Overall, Dodge officials were pleased with Sunday’s effort and are looking forward to continued improvement the next few weeks.

“We had a chance to get a lot of quality time with the new front nose, and that’s something we didn’t have,” said Tim Culbertson, program manager for Dodge Winston Cup Engineering. “We came in to Indy cold. We had some really good time to evaluate it Sunday. I believe now it looks directionally correct. We’ll go home and figure out what we learned.

“We’ll be better at Watkins Glen (road course). It can make a difference there, but for sure, Michigan will be the next big test for us. I really felt like the playing field was level at Indy. We’re pretty pleased with what we see right now as good potential.

“The 40 team (Marlin) is very disappointed because they came close to winning the race. The 22 team (Ward Burton) was the fastest car out there. You get dealt a different set of yellow flags and we win the race with the 22 car. The 43 ran good (Andretti), and the 9 ran good (Elliott), so we’re pleased.”

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