The conversation never changes:"Hey, Dave, what's the chance of us getting something to drive out to the Mopar Nationals next month?"

We were talking with Manager Dave Elshoff at Dodge Motorsports, trying to mooch some iron for the Keystone Caravan leg to Columbus, Ohio. Renting a Toyota to drive from north Jersey to the Nationals was out of the question, and frankly, we thought the 500-mile drive would be a great opportunity to road-test the latest factory iron in various conditions. Dave agreed and said he'd see what he could do.

DaimlerChrysler Fleet Coordinator Jamie Jones called us back a short time later and said they had a truck we could use. It wasn't just any new Dakota either; it was a special NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series version that Dodge Motorsports is now offering. We were scheduled to pick up the truck at the Newark, New Jersey, airport the day we arrived. With that settled, plans were made for the rest of the trip, and we would drop the truck off at Detroit's Metro Airport eight days later.

The first impression of the Dodge Motorsports Dakota is it looks identical to an R/T version. The most visible difference is the yellow-letter Goodyear tires-a full brace of P255/65R16 meats mounted on black, steel 16x8 rims. This club cab model rides on a 131-inch wheelbase. Special decal lettering for Dodge Motorsports is on the doors, and the grille is chromed. A special track bag of Dodge Motorsports accessories and apparel is also part of the package.

Inside, the interior is roomy, at least in the front. The high-back, black buckets are separated by a console unit, and the seats' construction is solid, with a great deal of adjustability (the driver side is a six-way electric model) and no pain after 7-8 hours of driving time. On one jaunt, we took passengers; the club cab backseat probably won't comfortably support anyone over the age of 16 for more than 15 minutes, but it's there if you need it. Art Director Bob Stuart and I filled this area with suitcases, camera bags, and some miscellaneous items for the long haul. The dash gauging is easy to read, and the column-mounted shifter gets the job done. We received speed (cruise) and audio controls on the wheel, the tilt column, and a leather steering-grip option on this example.

Where Dodge really did its homework is on the driveline. Check this out: The engine is the 287-inch 4.7 Next Generation Magnum V8, which has an output rating of 230 hp at 4,600 (295 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3,200). Behind this is the 45RFE four-speed automatic with a lockup converter and an overdrive override option, while a fat 3.92 gear in a Sure Grip (OK, it's called anti-slip now, but Sure Grip sounds cooler) differential. This is supplemented by a heavy-duty cooling system, an auxiliary trans cooler, and a 750-cold-cranking amp battery (Heavy Duty Service Group, $180 additional), and four-wheel, antilock disc brakes ($495 added).

The base price on a Dakota Club cab is $17,235; as delivered, this example was over $8,000 more ($25,475 after discounts). Part of that was a $1,015 Power Overhead Convenience Group, consisting of a roof-mounted console, power windows, and keyless entry, among other things. The exclusive Motorsports Edition equipment was another $825, and the truck had a great CD/stereo/amplifier outfit ($650 additional) and air conditioning ($800 additional) on top of the other options.

On the Road
Now we would be the first to admit this truck wasn't something to take out and beat on. Still, the drive in late-afternoon New Jersey traffic proved it was a runner. The real trial came the following day as we cruised across I-80 toward Ohio. Coming downgrade while leading the caravan through the Alleghany Mountains, we were maintaining a steady 65-mph pace when we heard a trucker over the CB radio say, "These $%^&#@$ Dodges, I'm blowin' by the whole group of 'em!"