ATLANTA - Now that questions about getting up to speed on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series are answered, Dodge now has a different question for 2002: Can it win a championship?
Sterling Marlin certainly carved through the uncertainty of an unproven engine program and an unproven Intrepid body style quicker than his Dodge teammates, and his ability to run door to door with the race-ready Fords, Chevrolets and Pontiacs has some thinking he could be a contender next season.
"I think we can be right there close contending for the title next season," Marlin said. "A lot of ifs will be involved, but we had five finishes of 32nd or worse (last) season. If we could have replaced three of those with top-fives, we would have been right there this year."
The 10-car Dodge fleet got off to a fast start by sweeping the front row for the season-opening Daytona 500, but the company's first victory didn't come until the 23rd race of the season: the Pepsi 400 at the Michigan International Speedway.
Marlin won that race, and it seemed to trigger a Dodge turnaround. The Intrepid proved to be a fast car in qualifying, but it struggled to find traction with the front tires. NASCAR helped by allowing Dodge to extend its front bumper by two inches after Aug. 5. From that point on, Dodge won four of the final 16 races - two by Marlin and one each by Bill Elliott and Ward Burton.
The same car that carried Marlin to the victory at Michigan also finished first at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C.; second at Indianapolis and Atlanta and fifth at Kansas.
"They're going to try to fingerprint that car, that's for sure," said Tim Culbertson, program manager for Dodge's NASCAR Winston Cup Series engineering. "In the hands of another driver, that car might not be better, but it sure worked for Sterling. You have to try to customize a car for each driver, but when you figure out what you have, then you can reproduce the car."
Marlin wound up third in the Winston Cup Series standings, a feat Culbertson said was more impressive than the company's four victories and seven pole positions.
"Now the expectations will be there," Culbertson said. "We've got to keep working hard and improving our cars and teams. I'm optimistic we can do that. The one-team approach (for all 10 Dodge cars) worked well in 2001, and I think it'll work even better in 2002."
CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE: Robin Pemberton shocked the sport with his resignation a week ago from Rusty Wallace's team, but that proved to be only the start of a trend.
Three other crew chiefs since have changed jobs.
Todd Parrott gave up his role with driver Dale Jarrett to become the team manager. Jimmy Elledge then quit Bobby Hamilton's team at Andy Petree Racing to take Parrott's job.
Jim Long left the Ultra Motorsports team to take over Terry Labonte's Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Gary DeHart, who led Labonte to the 1996 Winston Cup Series Championship, moved into a position at Hendrick's research and development department.
And Chris Knaus, whose Melling Racing team is on the brink of bankruptcy unless it finds a sponsor, quit to work with rookie Jimmie Johnson on a new team being fielded by Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports.
Also, Mark Martin's crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and Kurt Busch's crew chief, Ben Leslie, swapped jobs at Roush Racing.
The shakeup, especially with Pemberton and Parrott, means crew chief Jimmy Makar and driver Bobby Labonte now have the longest-standing working relationship in the sport. They joined forces in 1995.
PIT STOPS: NASCAR this week told all of its teams that crewmen who go over the wall during pit stops now are required to wear helmets and fire suits. ... Robert Pressley has agreed to drive a Dodge Ram for Bobby Hamilton Racing on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series next year. ... A.J. Foyt has narrowed the list of candidates to drive his No. 14 Pontiac on the Winston Cup Series to Stacy Compton and Kevin Lepage. Compton didn't wait for a final decision. He agreed to drive the No. 59 Chevrolet on the NASCAR Busch Series circuit for the next two years.
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