Dodge teams pulling together

Seven years into its re-entry to

NASCAR's top series, Dodge has pro-

vided ample proof that, in racing,

momentum can be a fleeting thing.

Sterling Marlin of Chip Ganassi Racing with

Felix Sabates held the Dodge banner high in

2002, its second season back, winning two races

for the second straight year and building a 91-

point lead in the Cup Series standings after the

Southern 500 at Darlington in September. But

Marlin wrecked the next week at Richmond and

subsequently had to sit out the season's final

seven races to short-circuit his title hopes.

The next year, Penske Racing joined the

Dodge fold and Ryan Newman won a circuit

best eight races. While five wrecks and two

mechanical issues forced Newman out early too

often for him to win the 2003 title, it seemed it

would be only a matter of time before he and

the No. 12 team sealed the deal. But still, that

hasn't happened.

In 2006, the baton passed to Ray Evernham's

team and driver Kasey Kahne, who won six

races but stalled out in the Chase for the Cup

and wound up eighth in the standings. No wor-

ries, it seemed, with the young driver's star only

beginning to rise. Then came a 2007 season in

which he faltered so badly - no wins and only

one top-five finish - it seemed almost impossi-

ble to fathom how such a slide occurred.

With that as a backdrop, the optimism pro-

fessed by Dodge brand director Mike Accavitti

for 2008 could be viewed as effusive.

"It is in our DNA that we don't give up,"

Accavitti said. "When we get knocked down we

get stronger. Our teams are that way, too. ...You

can always throw in the towel, or you can do

what we did and never give up. We kept trying,

one race and one day at a time, and we were

pleased with the progress we made and toward

end of the year last year. There was some

excitement going on there."

Pep talk notwithstanding, there is actually

some foundation there.

Kurt Busch surged into last year's Chase

after Pat Tryson took over as his crew chief, and

only Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch scored more

points in the second half of the sport's regular

season than Kurt Busch and his No. 2 Dodge

team did.

Ganassi got a spring back in its step when

Juan Pablo Montoya won at Infineon Raceway,

the first win for Ganassi since Jamie McMurray

got a victory while subbing for the injured

Marlin in 2002.

And, mercifully, 2007 finally ended for

Kahne and Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Things went so far south there last year that you

have to figure a new year can only be better.

In all candor, one of Dodge's biggest prob-

lems in recent years has seemed to be its teams'

inability to get out of each other's way.

When Dodge returned to the Cup Series in

2001, the mantra was a "one-team approach"

with aggressive plans for extensive sharing

across the various owners. What developed,

however, was a series of internal disagreements

over various changes the manufacturer sought to

its cars that manifested itself in different teams

actually running different models in the same

race at times.

That all came to a head last season, however,

Accavitti said at a team owners' meeting with

Dodge officials. With Chevrolet wiping the

floor with its rivals in the Cup Series, it was

time for a change.

"The conclusion we came to was that once

we were all in the top 10 we could start talking

about it being every man for himself," Accavitti

said. "We all came to a gentleman's agreement

to bring the whole pack forward together. We

needed to right the Dodge ship."

The new-found spirit of cooperation will get

a strong test as 2008 goes along as the teams try

to institute a new engine package that already

has NASCAR approval.

Busch's surge last year, which included a

pair of victories, puts him in position to next try

to sustain a forward drive into 2008. Actually,

however it was Newman who seemed to take to

the Car of Tomorrow as it was being introduced

last year - he had by far the most points

among Dodge drivers in the 16 races using the

car in 2007 - and that's the car everyone is

racing all season in 2008.

Montoya's victory at Infineon was hardly a

stunner, since the former Formula 1 driver is

one of the world's most accomplished road rac-

ers. But he also finished second in the Allstate

400 at Indianapolis, where he'd won in an

IndyCar, and finished every lap in two races run

at Martinsville, finishing eighth there in the fall.

Promising young driver Reed Sorenson returns

as a teammate and they're joined by a driver

who could certainly benefit from the lessons

Montoya learned as a Cup rookie - reigning

IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion

Dario Franchitti.

Patrick Carpentier, another driver with exten-

sive open-wheel experience, joins Kahne and

Elliott Sadler as GEM tries to shake off the

malaise of what can only be seen as a lost sea-

son.

Petty Enterprises' Bobby Labonte finished

18th in the 2007 final standings, the best for

that team since 1999. Kyle Petty once again will

drive the No. 45 except for a mid-summer hia-

tus to work with TNT's broadcasting team.

Ken Schrader and John Andretti both tested

in the No. 49 Dodge for BAM Racing at

Daytona last week.

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