Back on October 14, 1999, when Dodge announced its return to the NASCAR Winston Cup series, it's unlikely any of us Mopar fans believed an Intrepid R/T would have been poised to win the '02 points championship entering the season's final stretch.
After Dodge's success in late 2001 with wins by three of the four manufacturer's teams (Chip Ganassi, Bill Davis, and Ray Evernham), everyone expected great things from the Dodge Boys in 2002. Not wanting to disappoint the fans, the list of accomplishments began with the biggest race in the sport-the 44th Annual Daytona 500. Ward Burton claimed that prize aboard his Bill Davis Racing No. 22 Caterpillar-sponsored Intrepid R/T. It was his first Daytona 500 win and Dodge's first win since returning to the series.
Sterling Marlin, driving the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge, sat atop the points standings for much of the season, following a Second Place finish at Rockingham in the Subway 400 held in February. The hits just kept on coming, with Dodge Intrepids recording six wins, including three back-to-back-to-back. Marlin racked up two wins early in the season, bringing the trophies back to the Dodge/DaimlerChrysler camp with victories in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, followed two weeks later with the checker in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway. Burton also returned to victory lane for the second time that season in the New England 300, held at New Hampshire International Speedway, and two were won by Awesome Bill Elliott driving for car owner Ray Evernham aboard the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Intrepid R/T.
The wins by Awesome Bill were especially meaningful, with the Pennsylvania 500 win at Pocono Raceway coming on a Dodge grand slam weekend. That weekend saw the manufacturer claim victories in four different racing series. While only a few can fully understand the pride felt by the driver, team owner, and Dodge executives after Elliott's dominating win in the Ninth Annual Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was undoubtedly the second biggest jewel in the NASCAR Winston Cup crown.
But did you ever wonder how Dodge reached the heights it has in two short years?
Earlier in the '02 season, we sat down with Bob Wildberger, senior manager of NASCAR Operations for Dodge Motorsports, and he explained how the teams campaigning the Intrepid R/Ts were chosen.
What It Means To Dodge
Mopar Muscle (MM): Bob, we all know that one of Dodge's reasons for returning to racing is to sell cars, but being around you and everyone involved with the Winston Cup program, it goes much deeper than that.
Bob Wildberger (B.W.): There are many benefits in this program for Dodge. Sure, we want to sell cars; I'd be a liar if I said we didn't, but it goes much deeper than that. There's a great deal of corporate pride in this company. We're going through some very difficult business times right now. September 11 was something that no one expected, or dreamed of, that was a big blow not only to business, but also to everyone's reality in this country. The one big thing this program has done for us at Dodge is give our employees something to be proud of. They helped build and support this effort. We get the same reaction from our dealer network. They're part owners in this effort. A week doesn't go by that I don't get a call from one of them asking how we are doing and what they can do to help. The pride runs deep with the dealers and their employees. The fans were the ultimate reason both Dodge and their dealers' network had to get back into Winston Cup racing.
Ultimately, this whole program will help us sell more cars, but it's the fans that want to see Dodge racing against the other manufacturers. For us, the investment has already started to pay off-we've gotten advertising exposure worth much more than our investment in the program, plus our sales are picking up, so it's a win-win situation.
Getting The Teams Together
MM: The Mopar fans all wonder how Dodge came up with the mix of teams campaigning the Intrepid R/Ts and what strengths they bring to the program.
B.W.: In no particular order, let's begin with Ray Evernham. Ray was the first individual we approached to help us get this program off the ground, for obvious reasons. Ray is a winner-nothing will stand in this man's way. He has the highest of standards, be it work ethic, honesty, intelligence, he and his guys stand for everything you could possibly want in a race team. Ray has gone from nothing-no shops, no team, no cars, and no drivers-to winning his first race in his first year of operation. If you go back in the history books, you won't find many people that have done that. Ray's biggest strength is knowing how to bring out the best in people. Look at Bill Elliott, for instance. When Ray signed him, a lot of people wondered why. His win at Homestead at the end of last season quieted a lot of folks. The One Team approach that we at Dodge speak so highly of is what Ray's organization is built on. The only way they came from nothing to being one of the best teams in the Dodge camp-not to mention the entire Winston Cup Series-has been by using what Ray calls their collective IQ, the One Team approach. To sum it up, Ray Evernham is a great organizer and leader, not only to his own people, but he's been an inspiration to everyone in the Dodge camp.
Bill Davis Racing
When you mention Bill Davis to the sports insiders, the first thing that comes to mind is an exceptional eye for talent. Do the names Mark Martin, Ray Evernham, Bobby Labonte (2000 Winston Cup Champion), Ward Burton ('02 Daytona 500 winner), and some other guy named Jeff Gordon (four-time Winston Cup Champion), ring any bells? We'll let Bob Wildberger explain how Dodge snagged Bill Davis Racing:
B.W.: Bill Davis Racing was one of the first teams we sought to bring on board. Bill has a remarkable eye for finding talent: He's discovered many sports greats-he was the guy who first put Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon together. He also does a great job of not only finding good talent, but also giving them the tools they need to win. He then steps back and lets them get the job done. You can walk through his shop on any given day and see that philosophy at work. As I recall, Bill and I signed the deal on New Year's Eve of 2000, and since then, the growth within his organization has been phenomenal-not only by adding new personnel. They were literally breaking ground for new buildings as we signed the contracts. They've doubled the size of their facilities in less than a year and a half. Both Bill and Gail Davis are a class act, winning the Daytona 500 this past February was a deserved reward for what they've done, not only for racing in general, but for Dodge.
B.W.: Chip Ganassi is, and as far as we're concerned, will always be a racer. His organization brings a new point of view and a different way of achieving Dodge's goals for the Winston Cup program-winning races and championships. In 1999, Ganassi began to investigate the possibility of owning a NASCAR Winston Cup team. In 2000, he purchased a majority interest in Team SABCO from owner Felix Sabates. Ganassi and his new partner, Sabates, renamed the organization Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. In 2001, Ganassi changed car manufacturers and joined forces with Dodge Motorsports in its return to NASCAR racing. In addition to new cars, Ganassi hired engine builder Ernie Elliott to build the team's engines. He also brought in NASCAR Winston Cup veteran Andy Graves to join Tony Glover as team managers to oversee the two teams. In 2001, he matched veteran driver Sterling Marlin with rookie driver Jason Leffler. In 2002, Chip Ganassi placed Mr. Excitement (NASCAR veteran Jimmy Spencer) behind the wheel of the No. 41 Target Dodge Intrepid R/T. Just look at the records for the last two seasons; they speak for themselves.
MM: We understand the story behind signing Chip Ganassi was a bit different from how the rest of the guys came aboard.
B.W.: Chip was a great catch for us. He and I talked in 2000-well before he partnered with Felix Sabates. We [Dodge] had commitments from several of our key teams, but we weren't decided in our minds of the teams we wanted aboard that first year. Well, the way we got together was some of the folks that represent Chip got in touch with me and set up a meeting. At that point, I had never met Chip. I knew of his team's accomplishments-the championships and his phenomenal eye for talent- but I didn't know him as a person. Let me tell you, when you meet Chip Ganassi, it doesn't take long to realize this man has a fire in his belly. He and his organization are about winning. If he's got a goal, he's going to figure out how to accomplish it. What Chip and his organization bring to this party is the technology and resources from his open-wheel teams. As this whole NASCAR structure continues to develop, technology is going to become evermore important to stay on top of the game. NASCAR gives us a certain sized sandbox to play in, and it takes technology to figure out how to work within that box. What Chip has done is set up two strong race teams for NASCAR, with No. 40 and No. 41, yet his research and design engineers in Cup, CART, and IRL all share information. This allows them to draw from each other . . . it's always better to have an opinion from a different point of view.
The depth that Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates has shown from day one, since the Dodge Intrepid R/Ts took to the track in February 2001, has been nothing short of amazing.
Last, but definitely not least, is Petty Enterprises. When you think of the name Richard Petty (Dodge is his middle name), you wonder how the manufacturer could dream of returning to the Winston Cup Series without the Pettys aboard. But it seems that King Richard knew of the return long before the media, fans, or even the Dodge officials themselves, but we'll let Bob tell that story:
B.W.: How can you mention the great racing heritage of Dodge without uttering the word Petty? The reuniting of the two [Dodge and Petty] seven years ago in the Craftsman Truck Series was a key moment in our return to Winston Cup. Richard came up to Detroit, and he and I talked and then shook hands. We agreed to move forward on the truck deal. I'll still never forget what happened next. We were sitting in a little boardroom with some other people. At the end of the meeting, he stood up, pointed his finger at me like he does, and said, "You know, you say you're not going cup racing, but you are going cup racing someday, and I want to be there when you do!" That was neat. I still look back to that moment and smile. Sure enough, here we are.
When we first started the Winston Cup program, the Pettys were as much a part of making the One Team concept work [as anyone]. When we first started the Winston Cup program, we set up the development team with groups of people from Dodge and the founding teams to work on engines, chassis, and aerodynamics. At that time, we had just brought Ray Evernham on board. He was spearheading the aerodynamic development effort. At that time, he had no team, no facilities, no drivers, nothing.
We needed to get the program rolling, so Richard provided us with the facilities needed to build the first test car. He and Kyle had an extra building on their property that became kind of a skunkworks shop. It was off limits to the rest of his organization. Ray, along with some of his new guys, Bill Davis, and the Pettys, also provided us with some of their talent. That was how that first development car that we saw at Homestead in May 2000 got built. We couldn't have gotten this program off the ground so quickly without Richard and Kyle's help. Plus, their return to Dodge has produced a huge renaissance in the Petty organization. If you go back three years ago, just before this program began, they made huge investments in machinery, personnel, and a research and development department.
It's just a matter of time before the Pettys are back to their former championship caliber. Kyle has brought back Robin Pemberton-a winning veteran crew chief of Winston Cup racing for over 15 years-as vice president and general manager. He returned to Petty Enterprises in 2002 with a proven track record of building winners, with the determination to make this organization a dynasty like it was when he first arrived in the late-'70s.
The Pettys are becoming more competitive with each race. Sometimes the rebuilding process takes more time and is harder than starting over fresh. I can't say enough about the work that Kyle (president and CEO of Petty Enterprises) has done rebuilding this team. This sport has gotten so big that the owner-driver role is almost impossible to accomplish. He's done a great job at leading the organization by delegating much of the day-to-day responsibility, and he has been able to focus on the team's overall future and his driving.
In short, Petty Enterprises has done great things in the past for and with Dodge, and we expect them to do the same in the near future.
Well, there you have it, Mopar fans, a deep inside look at how your favorite Dodge Winston Cup teams came to join the factory effort. But wait-there's more.
Beginning in 2003, Penske Racing switched to Dodge Intrepid R/Ts. That means '89 Winston Cup Champion Rusty Wallace and rookie sensation Ryan Newman will be behind the wheels of Dodge Intrepids as soon as the '03 Daytona 500, so stay tuned.