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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Dodge Is Inching Closer to the Top

April 27, 2001|SHAV GLICK

The last time a Dodge was driven to victory in a NASCAR Winston Cup race, it was 1977 and the late Neil Bonnett was driving a Charger at Ontario Motor Speedway.

Ontario has been gone for more than 20 years but now there is the California Speedway, only a few miles down the road in Fontana, and it wouldn't be shocking if a Dodge won, for the first time since rejoining the stock car series this year after a 16-year absence, in Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500.

"There's no reason we can't be good out there," said Roy Evernham, the man given the job of returning the Chrysler product to the top of the NASCAR leaderboard.

"This is the 10th race in a five-year plan. I never promised them a win right out of the box, but Dodge has had a chance to win at Daytona, Atlanta, Talladega and a couple of other places."

A Dodge Intrepid has led every race this year, twice Dodge has started on the pole--Bill Elliott at Daytona and Stacy Compton at Talladega--and five times in nine races has finished in the top five, a second by John Andretti at Bristol the highest finish.

It also has two drivers in the top 10 of Winston Cup standings, Sterling Marlin fifth and Elliott 10th.

Evernham has another reason for expecting success at Fontana.

The first time one of his cars ran at California Speedway, it won. And the last time one of his cars raced there, it won again. Of course, those were Chevrolets driven by Jeff Gordon, but the masterminding was done by Evernham.

"California Speedway is a textbook track," he said. "There are no bumps, no jumps or anything. You can rely on your car working like it is supposed to. You need a car with good [aerodynamics] and a lot of horsepower because at this track both aero and horsepower are important."

The Intrepids have had no trouble finding horsepower. At NASCAR's two longest and fastest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, Dodges filled the front row--Elliott and Compton at Daytona, Compton and Marlin at Talladega.

"This deal is so new, but we're growing every week," Evernham said. "We're not going to be too bad, especially with what we learned at Texas. California is a lot like Michigan, so Bill Elliott ought to be good there."

Elliott has won seven races at Michigan, more than any other active driver.

"We're still working together with the 'one-team' approach whenever we have a problem," Evernham said.

Although there are five teams in the Dodge camp, they share information and test results. The teams are Evernham's (Elliott, rookie Casey Atwood), Chip Ganassi's (Marlin, rookie Jason Leffler), Bill Davis' (Ward Burton, Dave Blaney), Petty Enterprises (Andretti, Buckshot Jones, Kyle Petty) and Melling Racing (Compton).

"We went to the wind tunnel and shared the data with all the teams," Evernham said. "Kyle tested and shared information. At the same time, the teams are working on their own stuff. Our stuff is so new, we don't always know how we're going to perform the first time at a track. We should get better the second half of the season."

Marlin, coming off a series of dismal seasons racing for Felix Sabates, has emerged as the Dodge team leader after Ganassi bought the team and switched from GM to Chrysler. Last Sunday at Talladega, Marlin led four times for 51 laps, the first race in which he led the most laps, although he has led in every race. Only Ford's Mark Martin also has led in all nine races.

For Leffler, Fontana will be a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in Long Beach.

"My dad was a big race fan and I got started running quarter-midgets in the Pomona Valley Quarter-Midget Assn. and then ran USAC midgets at Ventura and Bakersfield," said Leffler, 25. "I was going to get in another year on the Busch circuit [driving for Joe Gibbs] but things didn't work out. This is going to be a learning year for me in Winston Cup. Sterling helps me a lot. He'll go out of his way to make sure I understand things that I ask him.

"I wish I could have driven another year in Busch, but this is a great deal. My parents live in Palm Desert now, but they'll be coming along with my brother Chris and about 20 people."

FORMULA ONE

The resurgence of the Frank Williams team of Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya has pumped new life into the Grand Prix circuit, which has suffered for several years because there were only two competitive teams, Ferrari and McLaren.

"The desert crossing seems to have come to an end," Williams said after Schumacher brought the team its first victory in more than three years at the San Marino Grand Prix.

Williams, who has won seven Formula One titles, has not won since 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve. The Ferrari-McLaren duo had won 22 consecutive races before the Williams breakthrough.

Schumacher won in the race after Montoya had muscled three-time champion Michael Schumacher aside during the Brazilian GP two weeks earlier and appeared on his way to his first victory when he was rear-ended by a lapped car. Ralf's victory made him and Michael the first brother combination to win grands prix.

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