The return of Dodge and parent company Daimler-Chrysler to Winston Cup racing this season after a nearly 20-year hiatus from the circuit had produced a great deal of high expectations coming into the 2001 campaign.
But as lofty as those expectations were, reality and the intense competition seen daily in Winston Cup -- where as little as one horsepower or one-thousandth of a second can make the difference between a joyous victory and dejected defeat -- foretold what would likely be a long and winding road before Dodge could return to the same level of NASCAR prominence that Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac have enjoyed for many years.
Shepherding the return of Dodge to NASCAR racing was Ray Evernham, who resigned as Jeff Gordon's crew chief following the 1999 season. Evernham jumped at the chance to join Dodge engineers in developing the new Dodge Intrepid R/T from concept to reality.
For Evernham, the lure to leave an established three-time Winston Cup championship team, with Gordon as one of the most popular and successful drivers in NASCAR history, wasn't a matter of unhappiness on his part with Gordon or the team. Rather, his decision to strike out on his own was based upon three major reasons:
1) With a multi-year sponsorship, engine and chassis development and financial support package worth a rumored $30 to $40 million in its entirety (some reports placed the total figure even higher), Evernham would be able to achieve one of the biggest dreams of his career, that of becoming a Winston Cup team owner.
2) Starting his own team would allow Evernham to step out of the shadow of Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick, to prove he was more than just a crew chief and that he had the ability and wherewithal to become one of the most successful team owners in Winston Cup.
3) Perhaps the most enticing -- and significant -- reason Evernham struck out on his own was Dodge gave him carte blanche to first develop a chassis and motor program the way he saw fit. Even when other teams initially flocked to join the Dodge program, there was no question who was No. 1 in the equation: Ray Evernham. And if Evernham didn't like something, he changed it, with no questions asked or complaints heard from Dodge officials or other teams wanting to hop on the Dodge bandwagon. They had to go along to get along with him. Building an entire racing program and (eventually his own) multi-car team from the lug nuts up, with everything new and untested was, without question, the biggest challenge Evernham ever had in his Winston Cup competition career, a challenge he eagerly accepted.
With just over half a season in the record books, Dodge has had its share of pleasant surprises and bitter disappointments.
Perhaps the most significant negative thus far has been the failure of any of the five teams (Evernham Racing, Petty Enterprises, Ganassi-Sabates Racing, Davis Racing and Melling Racing) or 10 cars (driven by the likes of Bill Elliott, Casey Atwood, John Andretti, Buckshot Jones, Kyle Petty, Dave Blaney, Ward Burton, Sterling Marlin, Jason Leffler and Stacy Compton) that wear the Dodge nameplate to reach Victory Lane.
But at the same time, there have been some notable achievements accomplished in a relatively short period of time, the most notable being the season-opening Daytona 500, when the first three qualifying positions were earned by Dodge drivers, namely Elliott on the pole, Compton alongside him on the outside of the front row, and Marlin on the inside of the second row.
Dodge officials were ecstatic. The euphoria, which admittedly was tempered when Winston Cup legend Dale Earnhardt was tragically killed on the final lap of the race, continued when three Dodge cars finished the race in the top-10: Elliott in fifth place, Marlin in seventh and Compton in tenth.
But since that season-opener, Dodge-powered teams have ridden a roller coaster of moderate highs mixed in with miserable lows. There have been two more Dodge-powered pole-sitters in the first 19 races -- Compton at Talladega and Marlin in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona -- but there have also been considerable teams, particularly for the Petty Enterprises team, which has collectively struggled the most of the entire 10-car Dodge lot.
Without question, Marlin has been the most successful pilot in the Dodge stable thus far this season. Coming into this Sunday's Pennsylvania 500, Marlin is the highest-ranked Dodge driver (fifth place in the current standings), has the most top-five (5) and top-10 (10) finishes, and has earned nearly $1.63 million in winnings.
Unfortunately, there is a major drop-off from that point. The next most successful Dodge driver is Burton (18th place, with two top-5 and four top-10 finishes) followed by Elliott (19th place, with one top-5 and four top-10s) and Blaney (26th, three top-10s).
Five other Dodge drivers rank between 30th and 40th place in the current standings: Andretti (31st, one top-5 and two top-10s), Compton (33rd, one top-10), rookies Atwood (34th, no top-5 or top-10 finishes) and Leffler (35th, no top-5 or top-10 showings) and Jones (39th, no top-5 or top-10 finishes).
Rounding out the 10-driver pack is Petty in 42nd place (has qualified for only 12 of the first 19 events).
Through it all, Evernham has been there every step of the way. Once this season began, he turned almost all his efforts and focus on his own two-car team, with drivers Elliott and Atwood and the other 125 employees he has on his payroll. However, while some may consider him just another team owner now, Evernham is without question still the most powerful force and voice in the Dodge Winston Cup program to this date.
ESPN.com recently had the opportunity to sit down with Evernham and talk about how he feels the entire program, as well as his own team, has fared thus far; what to look for on the horizon; what it will take to put a Dodge in Victory Lane; and the challenges he's gone through in the last 20 months since assuming leadership of the Dodge program.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
ESPN: From your perspective, from where you started to where you are right now, is the success of the overall program along the lines of where you thought it would be right now?
EVERNHAM: "I have to be honest and say 'no.' We're not where I thought we would be, but we're probably ahead of where we should be. I probably underestimated the amount of work we had putting two teams together, along with an engine shop. So when I look back and ask if my expectations were unrealistic, yes, they probably were. But sometimes when you set a little bit of a higher goal than you can achieve, you end up getting further along than you could have. When I look back at everything that we've done and in the amount of time we've done it in, I'm very happy where the race team is right now. We're not as far as I thought we could be, but I have never been through something like this before. So, when I look on what we've done, I'm very happy with what we've accomplished."
ESPN: Your own team of Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood seems to have become more consistent in the last several races than at any other time previously this season. What do you attribute that to?
EVERNHAM: "From my original projections, I shot too high. We've wound up somewhere in-between of where I thought we would be. I feel happy with our systems, our people, our training and our direction. Just recently we've turned a corner here, and I feel good about that. I would have loved to have more top-10s and top-5s in our pocket right now, but I feel like that stuff is going to be coming. And when it comes, it's going to be on a solid foundation, which has always been what's important."
ESPN: Can you elaborate more about your feeling that the team has turned a corner recently?
EVERNHAM: "The biggest thing is we've got most of our car building out of the way. Our original projection was to build 28 cars for the year, but we've built 31 up to this point already. So, we're pretty much car building for a while, and I think our development systems can now go to work to make things faster. What I didn't realize and what I underestimated was the time it would take for a team to jell together when you come off a team that was as strong as the one I was on. Sometimes you take that for granted and forget it takes two or three years to get that kind of chemistry. I think we've done a pretty good getting it here in just about six or seven months. The chemistry is there, the hardware is there, now we just have to improve and make it faster."
ESPN: When you made your selection of Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood, was it by design to choose one very successful Winston Cup veteran and a promising youngster, one guy who could teach and the other who would be an excellent student for the long-term?
EVERNHAM: "Absolutely, because there'd be no conflict. There's no conflict between Casey and Bill over who's No. 1 and who's No. 2 on the team. That's the way Formula 1 teams are set up. You can't build a team with two guys competing for the same position."
ESPN: Daytona stands out as probably the biggest highlight thus far of how quickly the entire Dodge program came together, with three cars in the top three qualifying positions. You couldn't do much better than that, could you?
EVERNHAM: "No, we did good there. Certainly, we would have liked to come out of Daytona with some better finishes. We worked hard for the Daytona 500. That was our first splash back. Sure, wanting to do well there probably put us back in some other areas, but we're working on that now. But all-in-all, even though we haven't won, Dodge has been competitive, it's led laps, it's had several top-10s and top-5s, we probably should have sat on more poles. We just have to continue to work."
ESPN: If there's been one thing that has been the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome this year, what has that obstacle been?
EVERNHAM: "Time, just time, really. Certainly, there's inexperience on my part, having to learn how to be a car owner, just like there was when I had to learn how to be a crew chief. But really, it's been time that has been the biggest obstacle."
ESPN: Your resume and pedigree are both geared towards winning over the years. How frustrating is it for you not to have a victory yet this season, either from your own two drivers or other Dodge drivers?
EVERNHAM: "It's certainly frustrating. You do it to win. But as long as I can feel us working towards getting there, and I feel good about that, I can live with that because I know that we will win if we keep going in the direction that we're going. Frustration is what comes along when you feel you don't have any chance of winning, but we do feel we have a chance of winning every week. I did this (building the Dodge program) for a different reason. I wanted to feel good about building an operation that could win, and every day I feel like we take a step towards the goals of winning. If I didn't see light at the end of the tunnel, I'd be real frustrated. But every day, we get little victories, we're making our cars better, our people get better at their jobs. So, we haven't won races, but we've won some little battles here that keep us going."
ESPN: The transition from successful crew chief to rookie team owner, as well as shepherding a brand new motor and chassis program from Dodge, how has that changed your life?
EVERNHAM: "It certainly has changed my life quite a bit. You have to learn to delegate and compromise more. The more people you get working for you, the more you have to compromise. And there's a fine line, because if you compromise too much, the team doesn't take on your personality, and I want this team to take on my personality. You can't compromise so much that performance goes down, you have to know when to push and when not to push and pick your battles in priority order. I've had to work hard to learn a lot about business, because part of my job is making sure the right people are in the right places and they've got the right tools to do what they need to do. We're trying to go toe-to-toe with some of the smartest guys in the business -- the Rick Hendricks, the Jack Roushes, the Richard Childresses, the Robert Yateses and the Joe Gibbses -- and we're starting years behind them. Those guys have 10 or 12 or more years of a head start ahead of us. We've got to work harder, smarter and more efficient, and that's been a challenge in itself. I feel like we're doing okay. Sure, we want to be competitive with the best teams in the business. I don't want people saying, 'That's a rookie team and they're just starting out.' I don't want to be compared to that. We want to stand with the best teams in the business. I know that's a tall order, but that's what will get us there."
ESPN: You started out as the shepherd of the entire Dodge development program. When did you step back and let the other teams start doing more of their own things development-wise, and allowing you to concentrate more so on just your team?
EVERNHAM: "Really in the later part of 2000. Once we got the car and motor and things approved, and we finished up our testing requirements for Dodge, which was about last September or October. Only then was I truly able to concentrate almost solely on Evernham Motorsports 100 percent. We never even moved up to our shop in Statesville until December 10th."
ESPN: We're now in the second half of the season, with return visits to several tracks that have already hosted one Winston Cup already this year. Are there any particular tracks you can point to and say, now that you have a baseline from the first race there, you feel you may have a better chance of winning at a certain locale in the second race of the season there?
EVERNHAM: "I don't know. We hope to be better at all the tracks, but Casey and Bill are good at different tracks. If you talk about the entire Dodge program in general, I think it could be any week at any track. It's hard for me to say we've got a better shot at this place or that place, because we're still new enough where we don't know. We could go to a place and all of a sudden take a huge step. Casey ran really good for a good part of the race at Pocono earlier this year, which surprised all of us, but are we ready to win there? I don't know, but we can certainly get a good finish. Bill runs real well at Michigan, and we're hoping both cars run respectable at Indianapolis. Casey has run extremely well at places like Bristol and Martinsville and Homestead, where he finished 10th last year. It would be very hard for me to pick a track, to say that's where we have our best shot at, but some of these coming up we could certainly be in contention for a win."
ESPN: What goals did you have for both Bill and Casey coming into this season?
EVERNHAM: "My goals at the beginning of the year were to have Bill finishing in the top-15 in points and challenging for some wins by the end of the year, and I think that's a very, very reachable goal. I had hoped Casey would be in the top-25 in points and challenging for Rookie of the Year, but we've had some issues with the No.19 car that have put it way back in points, but it's not his fault. There's a lot of inexperience on that team. It's getting stronger, but we've missed that mark. Plus, with guys like Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch running away (with top rookie honors), we still feel Casey is doing respectable. We're going to miss our goals on some marks, but I truly believe that by the end of the year, Bill is going to be challenging for wins and Casey will be doing a lot better, too. I expect to see our cars in that top-10 hunt, and once you're in that top-10 hunt consistently, anything can happen."
ESPN: Final question, Ray -- when that first win comes, and it could come as soon as this weekend in Pocono, how relieved will everyone be?
EVERNHAM: "What's helped me the most in my career is you have to put the wins behind you and prepare for the next race like you've never won. If you keep an attitude like that, it's easier to put the bad races behind you, too. Unfortunately, when you win you have only a short amount of time to enjoy it before you have to put it behind you forever and go on and prepare for the next race. In this sport, you're allowed to enjoy a win from Sunday to Thursday, and that's it."
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR Winston Cup for ESPN.com.