All through testing and Speedweeks at Daytona, it seemed there was one thing fans could count on happening in the 50th running of the Daytona 500: The Toyotas and the Hendrick Chevrolets would be near the front in the Great American Race. Hendrick’s latest acquisition, Dale Earnhardt Jr., got off to a fast start during Speedweeks, winning the Bud Shootout and his 150-mile qualifying race. Another Hendrick Chevrolet, the No. 48 Lowe’s Impala, driven by Jimmie Johnson, took the Coors Light Pole. The reigning champion shared the front row with the face – and mouthpiece – of Toyota, Michael Waltrip. Denny Hamlin bested teammate and fellow Toyota driver Tony Stewart to win his 150-mile qualifying race. With such a precedence, why would we expect anything else?
During the Daytona 500, it was the Toyota show, with a sprinkling of Hendrick, as expected. Kyle Busch looked primed to take home the checkers, but only if Stewart didn’t get there first. So how did it all turn out?
As their ads from the 1960s stated, “Put a Dodge in Your Garage.”
While the field fanned out on the backstretch on the “money” lap, Ryan Newman, with a big push from teammate Kurt Busch, streaked by on the outside of Stewart, who was being pushed by teammate Kyle Busch, to take the lead. The whole scene looked perfectly orchestrated, and almost anti-climactic as the two Chargers surged to the front of the pack and ran unencumbered to the finish line. It didn’t end there. Looking back through the top-11 spots, seven of them were “Pentastar” powered machines. The brand that was the preverbal boat anchor last season suddenly thrust itself back atop the points standings with their first Daytona 500 win since Ward Burton accomplished the feat back in 2002.
Winged Mopars at Daytona – what did you think was going to happen?
To say that it has been a reversal of fortune is putting it lightly. Last season, all of the Dodge teams were out to lunch for the most part of the season. Kurt Busch managed two wins, but even his car couldn’t get out of its own way until Pat Tryson showed up and built a properly balanced racecar. Things were so bad at Gillett Evernham Motorsports, they went back to running the 2006 version of the Charger following one humiliating failure after another.
All told, Dodge only won three races in 2007; down from seven wins a year earlier. Even the CoT races last year, which were seen as the “great equalizer,” failed to tighten the gap much. Chrysler’s performance division and their face of NASCAR desperately needed to right the ship.
The Car of Tomorrow is now the Car of Today, a full-time endeavor for this season and beyond. Taking a look back through the Daytona 500 finishing order, it looks like Dodge found a fix. Six of the top-eight finishers were driving Chargers. Besides the Penske duo of Newman and Kurt Busch finishing 1-2, Reed Sorenson came in fourth and a trio of Gillett Evernham-powered cars finished sixth through eighth. Bobby Labonte finished 11th, narrowly missing out on getting a top 10 for Petty Enterprises, a team that is synonymous with Chrysler and NASCAR.
What’s remarkable is that it wasn’t just one team running up front; it was all the Dodge teams, something Dodge Motorsports Director Mike Accaviti says is a result of hard work. “For us to get six out of the top-eight is just a phenomenal showing for Dodge. It shows the depth of our program and we couldn’t be more excited for the 2008 season. We’ve been telling everybody that we’re working better together and the proof is in the pudding.”
Even Juan Pablo Montoya took a turn at the front. After attempting a power move on Clint Bowyer – one that collected Bowyer in the process, Montoya got shuffled back. He ran better most of the day than his 32nd-place finishing position would indicate. A look at the rundown of manufacturers has nearly all of the top-20 finishers in either a Dodge or Toyota – the two makes that couldn’t keep pace with the Chevrolet last year.
Come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a plate race with only four Chevrolets in the top 20? Only Earnhardt Jr. managed to put a Bow Tie in the top 10, finishing ninth.
Some may bring up the notion that it was a restrictor-plate race whose outcome was largely decided by a restart. That may be, but to win, you must first put yourself in a position to win. As Newman said following his victory, “The most important thing is, we didn’t beat ourselves.”
A look at the top-10 shows that all of the Dodges managed to stay in the race, and stay together, long enough to set themselves up for a strong finish. They may not have been lightning fast in qualifying, but when it came time to race, they made their way to the front. Newman may have only led a total of eight laps, but he led the one that counted.
Plate racing is one thing, downforce tracks are quite another. With the common templates and reliance on engineering skill and of all things, driver ability, the Dodges look to maintain their competitiveness beyond the 33-degree banking of Daytona. Taking a glance at the testing speeds from Las Vegas, four of the six fastest times were from Dodge teams.
At California, where the series heads to next week, Dodges were among the top-three speeds in all sessions. With the CoT sharing a common template with other makes, no longer is the Charger riding a razor’s-edge balance between being pinned at the nose or ready for lift off. Dodge engines, particularly the Penske motors, have never hurt for horsepower, and now they look to put it to good use while competing on more equal footing than they have the last few years.
2008 was seen by many to have a gloom and doom quality about it. Cookie-cutter cars, Toyota’s big money and big horsepower overwhelming the series, and Hendrick looking to continue its domination of Sprint Cup with NASCAR’s biggest name joining their ranks. Instead, it appears that a manufacturer that has been out of the fray for a while is back, and they intend to be a factor all season long – something that Dodge teams and Mopar fans alike have not been able to say for quite some time.