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No Dodging Him

Owner Evernham Is Talk of Daytona With Intrepid


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was 500 days ago that Ray Evernham was given the go-ahead for an improbable task--to build a new Dodge Intrepid race car from scratch in time for the 2001 Daytona 500.

Mission accomplished.

Evernham's hand-picked driver, a reputedly over-the-hill Bill Elliott, drove one of Evernham Motorsports' Intrepids 183.565 mph Saturday, faster than any of the Fords, Chevrolets or Pontiacs that have been competing for years at Daytona International Speedway.

Another Dodge, driven by Stacy Compton and owned by Mark Melling, but part of the 10-car team concept developed by Evernham, will start alongside Elliott in the front row.

What the Dodge taskmaster wants next is 500 miles out of his engines Sunday.

"When I came to work on the Dodge program, this engine was on a computer screen," said the man who guided Jeff Gordon to meteoric heights a few years ago, then left to develop a car that would return Dodge to Winston Cup racing after an absence of 17 years.

"There were no hard parts for [the engine]. I told somebody that I felt like the man that jumped off the cliff and I'm building a parachute on the way down."

Remarkably, all eight of the other Dodges entered are in position to get into Sunday's 43-car field through today's twin 125-mile qualifying heats.

For his own team, the anchor of the DaimlerChrysler program, Evernham chose drivers Elliott, 44, whose own team had recently been dropped by longtime sponsor McDonald's, and Casey Atwood, a teenage rookie.

"I don't know why people were surprised when I got Bill," Evernham said. "He is the perfect guy to be the cornerstone of our team. First, he is a great driver. He has the experience we need, he knows how to win and he's an excellent chassis setup guy. And as a guy who's been around, he makes the perfect teacher for Casey."

As work on the project progressed, other teams announced plans to join Evernham.

Richard Petty, who won two of his seven Daytona 500s in Dodges, returned Petty Enterprises to his former brand with drivers John Andretti, Buckshot Jones and Kyle Petty, Richard's son.

Chip Ganassi, who has made a career of changing brands--and winning--in CART, decided to make his full-time NASCAR debut with Dodges for the veteran Sterling Marlin and rookie Jason Leffler, who left Joe Gibbs' Busch team to accept Ganassi's offer of a Winston Cup ride.

Bill Davis, who'd brought Jeff Gordon into NASCAR from the U.S. Auto Club open-wheel ranks, switched from Pontiac to Dodge and brought along veteran driver Ward Burton and sprint car champion Dave Blaney.

Melling Racing, which had been Elliott's owner in his early days as a Ford driver, not only joined Dodge with Compton as a single-car entry, but also gave Elliott back his old number, 9, for his red Dodge. Melling took No. 92 for his red look-alike.

"What I like most about the way Ray has developed the Dodge--other than Bill being on the pole--is the way he has involved all 10 Dodges in the program," said Lou Patane, DaimlerChrysler vice president of motor sports operations. "Two of them are sponsored by the Dodge Dealers and the UAW National Training Center, but the reality was, this is a one-team concept."

Patane, as the senior DaimlerChrysler official involved in racing, said the recent cut of 26,000 employees from the manufacturer's work force would have no effect on the future of Dodge's Winston Cup program.

"From senior management's perspective and right from [U.S. CEO] Dr. Dieter Zetsche's perspective, this program is in place and will not change," Patane said. "We're still long-term committed to this strategy because we believe it will fulfill the marketing objective of Dodge, not only this year, but into the future."

It's a modern-day version of the old "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" motto that NASCAR promoted 50 years ago.

Winning the pole for the DaimlerChrysler brand certainly did the job, for one day at least, putting Dodge in headlines everywhere--and creating its own controversy.

Not everyone was surprised to see Elliott coming off a rather lackluster series of practice times to suddenly jump up with the fastest car at Daytona.

"We've said all along that if you give Ray and those types of people that long to build a car--and they weren't hollering when they were down here running 179 miles an hour . . . " said Dale Jarrett, last year's Daytona 500 winner. "If they were seriously that bad off, they would have been hollering and we didn't hear a thing out of them.

"They ought to have a good car. They used the Ford Taurus templates to build it off of and took what was wrong with the Taurus and made it better. That's just smart business on their part. You can't blame anybody, NASCAR or anybody, because you had no idea."

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