Lack of a superstar team giving Dodge an identity crisis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Kyle Petty thinks of Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports comes immediately to mind. Toyota? Joe Gibbs Racing. Ford? Roush Fenway Racing.


"You don't think anything," he said. "They don't have a super team."

Pretty harsh words from a Dodge driver. But Petty doesn't believe things will stay that way. He's excited about the new ownership of the Chrysler Corp. and the direction Dodge is headed in the Sprint Cup Series with teams sharing information more than ever.

He's optimistic the new engine Dodge will unveil later this year will improve performance.

He just doesn't believe Dodge has an A team to make people stand up and take notice the way the other manufacturers do.

"I'm just being honest," Petty said. "When I look at it, I don't think we have a solid A team as an organization. If we threw all the Dodge teams into a pile and mixed and matched the drivers, we could come up with an A team.

"Pull us apart, we're warm water. Nobody's hot."

That definitely was the case in 2007. Dodge won only three races, two by Kurt Busch and one by rookie of the year Juan Pablo Montoya. It placed only one driver, Busch, among the 12 in the championship Chase and had only two drivers in the top 17 in points.

Kasey Kahne, who won six races in 2006, won none.

"Last year didn't live up to our expectations," said Mike Accavitti, the director of the Dodge brand and Street and Racing Technology.

Accavitti hopes things are in place to turn things around. Dodge has taken the money it once invested in sponsorship for Kahne and Elliott Sadler's cars at Gillett Evernham Motorsports and put it into research and development with those cars taking new sponsors.

It has restructured the way the company works to encourage more sharing.

"When we first started into NASCAR we had one dominant team with Ray [Evernham] and everybody looked to Ray because of his experience as a crew chief," said John Fernandez, who left corporate headquarters in 2006 to become the general manager at Chip Ganassi Racing. "Then when you added Ganassi and Penske you had some very dominant teams and very interesting personalities.

"And so it became less important that you had one team that was driving the whole process and you went through a little bit of a phase where you were trying to get everybody on the same page. We're over that now. Everybody is working together now."

Gillett Evernham Motorsports
No driver or organization had a bigger drop-off in performance last season than Kahne and GEM.

Kahne went from six wins and an eighth-place finish in the points standings to no wins and a 19th-place finish. He went from 19 top-10s to eight, and from 12 top-5s to one.

His teammates didn't fare much better. Sadler finished 25th in points, registering only two top-10s. Scott Riggs finished 36th in points and was replaced by open-wheel convert Patrick Carpentier late in the season.

We got so lost last year that we weren't working together. We weren't communicating. It was just a bad year.

-- Ray Evernham

Evernham blamed part of the failure on flawed information provided by former technical director Eric Warren. He said that took the organization down a path from which it never recovered.

"We got so lost last year that we weren't working together," he said. "We weren't communicating. It was just a bad year."

Evernham is taking on a lesser role this season as the minority owner of the restructured company purchased last year by Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. He hopes to spend more time focusing on performance now that he doesn't have to worry about the business side.

"It was good to wipe that clean, sit down and have hard conversations with everybody and say, 'Look, we're going to start this over, we're going to make some changes in the process so that doesn't happen again, we're going to go back to the basics with blocking and tackling,'" Evernhan said.

"Last year we were just a shotgun approach. It just wasn't working."

Outlook: Kahne is now the Budweiser man, taking over the sponsorship synonymous with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Until Dodge proves it has its act together, he'll fare no better than the old Bud man, who hasn't been to Victory Lane in a points race in more than a year. Sadler has never been much more than a middle-of-the-pack driver, and time is running out for him to step it up. Carpentier has shown the ability to drive fast as he makes the transition from open wheel, but his learning curve is steep and he could have a tough time making races.

Chip Ganassi Racing
Montoya didn't make the Chase, but he arguably was the best thing Dodge had going for it in 2007.

The former Indianapolis 500 champion won at the road course in Sonoma,
Calif. He was second in one of the biggest races of the year at Indianapolis. He finished eighth at Martinsville Speedway during the Chase.

"What surprised everybody with Montoya was how quickly he adapted to some of the racetracks and to these types of races cars over what he had done," Petty said. "The drivers as a group were impressed with Montoya's performance.

"It's not as easy to run Bristol. It's just not. That's what impressed. Everybody knew he could drive a road course. That didn't impress me. Montoya winning at [Sonoma] didn't impress me as much as Montoya at Bristol the first time, or Montoya at Martinsville the first time. Things like that were freaking impressive."

Montoya will be joined this season by another open-wheel star, Dario Franchitti, who replaces David Stremme in the No. 40 car. Franchitti will have some advantage because Ganassi has been through this process with Montoya and has a solid plan in place.

Third-year Cup driver Reed Sorenson, who was 22nd in points a year ago, ironically is the senior member at Ganassi. He has only four career top-5s and 11 top-10s. The pressure is on him to perform because Ganassi has other open-wheel candidates in the wings.

Outlook: Montoya proved he can compete in 2007. He has to prove he can be more consistent before anybody considers him a serious threat for the Chase. Franchitti will have a tough time bettering Montoya's first year, but many believe he is a better overall driver. Sorenson, like Montoya, needs consistency to take the next step forward.

Penske Racing
Statistically, Busch was one of the top drivers last season, leading a higher percentage of miles (11.75) than anybody in the series. But the 2004 champion turned that into only two wins and 14 top-10s, leaving him a distant seventh in the final standings.

Ryan Newman is in the midst of a four-year slump. He hasn't won the past two seasons and has only three wins over the past four after winning a series-high eight races in 2003. He had a series-high nine DNFs a year ago, but despite his bad luck finished 13th in points.

He's rejoining crew chief Roy McCauley, so there's optimism he can recapture the magic that made him a championship contender from 2002-05.

Former Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. joins this stable, beginning the season with Busch's owner's points to guarantee he'll be in the first five races. Hornish failed to qualify for his first six races last season, and finished 30th and 37th in the final two events.

"I think the third car is going to help us from a financial standpoint, from a team input standpoint," Newman said. "It's just like I always said when Buddy Baker was helping me, he didn't always tell me what do to, he told me what not to do as well.

"When they're here testing things, they can tell us what not to do, what to do and vice versa. As long as the people are good, the effort is good and the performance is there, then it will be beneficial for all the organization. On top of that, as I've said in the past, the more people you have; when things are good they're great, and when things are bad, they're really bad."

Outlook: Busch should be in the mix for the Chase once again, as should Newman with a little luck. Both have the potential to be what Petty considers A drivers, which would make Penske an A team. Beginning the year with Busch's points will be huge for Hornish, but staying in the top 35 will be tough.

Petty Enterprises
NASCAR's most storied franchise has moved from Level Cross, N.C., to the heart of stock car racing country in Mooresville. It's a move the organization felt it had to make to rise from the ashes of mediocrity.

Petty's last trip to Victory Lane was in 1999, and there have been only three trips there since 1983.

But the move to the Charlotte area and confidence in Bobby Labonte, who won the 2000 Cup title at Joe Gibbs Racing and was competitive at times last season, is reason for hope.

Outlook: Labonte has 11 top-10s the past two seasons, which is more than Petty Enterprises has had in the past five. He was 18th in points and could be considered a dark horse to make the Chase. Petty finished third in a fuel-mileage race at Charlotte last season, but barely slipped into the top 35 in points. There's no reason to think he won't be on the bubble again.

Robby Gordon Motorsports
Robby Gordon was in a Ford until a couple of weeks ago, when he made the jump to Dodge to partner with GEM.

Gordon has done little since 2003, when he had two wins and 10 top-10s en route to a 16th-place finish in points. He's had only 13 top-10s since then and no wins.

Outlook: Nobody doubts Gordon's ability to drive, particularly on road course tracks. But with the exception of 2003, he's been 20th to 37th place in points and there's no reason to think that will change even with a change in manufacturer.

BAM Racing
Ken Schrader will try to keep this struggling race team afloat.

A year ago, the organization turned to Mike Bliss and GEM motors, but he missed 11 of 15 races before being replaced by Chad Chaffin. John Andretti was signed to drive in '08, but the contract was nullified a few days before testing at Daytona.

Ken Schrader was signed to drive in the Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500, but the remainder of the season is up in the air.

Outlook: Not much to say here other than this definitely isn't what Petty would call a candidate for an A team.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.