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Saturday, February 10
After 23 years out, Dodge fastest
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dodge Different.
The car manufacturer's slogan became reality Saturday when NASCAR's newest entry, led by pole-winner Bill Elliott, debuted with an impressive showing in qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup champion and counted on by new team owner Ray Evernham to lead by experience, did just that at Daytona International Speedway in the official debut of the Intrepid.
NASCAR's all-time speed champion -- who set numerous records more than a decade ago during the era of unrestricted engines -- showed he still knows the fastest way around the 2-mile, high-banked Daytona oval, turning a lap of 183.565 mph.
The other front row spot for the Feb. 18 race would have gone to Jerry Nadeau, whose Chevrolet Monte Carlo toured the track at 182.763. But after Nadeau was disqualified for using an illegal shock absorber, Stacy Compton moved up and Dodge -- whose only history was established in winter testing -- wound up taking both inside and outside poles, and landing three of the top seven spots.
"The lap didn't feel that fast and the car was jumping around," Elliott said. "When (crew chief) Mike (Ford) told me the time, it blew me away."
The success was particularly gratifying for Elliott, whose career had appeared to be in decline until late last season when he agreed to sell his own team to Evernham and signed to drive for Jeff Gordon's former crew chief.
The Georgian once known as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville," said one key to Saturday's success was retaining the chemistry his team exhibited in finishing last season under the direction of Evernham.
"We kept a lot of the key guys from my organization last year that rolled on over into the winter," Elliott said. "I think that was a part of where we needed to be. The only question was the engines, and I felt confident that Ray was going to put the right group of people together to accomplish that feat."
Evernham, selected by Daimler/Chrysler to spearhead the return of its Dodge brand to Winston Cup after a 17-year absence, directed the development of both the new Intrepid and the new Dodge engine while also putting together the two-car Evernham Motorsports team.
"Ol' Bill Elliott," a grinning Evernham said. "This is unbelievable."
Evernham, whose other driver, 20-year-old rookie Casey Atwood, was 26th at 280.730, added, "Our engine shop's been working 24 hours a day. There's been a constant flow of Dodge engineers and a lot of wives and kids didn't get to see their husbands and fathers over the winter. But, this is great."
Only the top two drivers locked in starting spots in the 43-car Daytona field, with more time trials Monday and Tuesday and two 125-mile qualifying races Thursday.
After Nadeau's disqualification, Stacy Compton was second in another Dodge at 182.682, followed by three-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Jarrett's Ford at 182.622, the Pontiac of Tony Stewart at 182.534, the Chevy of two-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon at 182.474, Ward Burton in an Intrepid at 182.419 and two-time Daytona champ Sterling Marlin -- driving a Dodge for the new team of Chip Ganassi -- at 182.135.
Some of the biggest-name drivers qualified outside the top 20.
Defending series champion Bobby Labonte, Stewart's teammate, was 22nd at 180.923, with former series champion Rusty Wallace next at 180.861 and seven-time champ and former Daytona winner Dale Earnhardt 28th at 180.694.
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