Richard Petty (left) poses with the Dodge Charger he drove to three NASCAR titles while Jeremy Mayfield stands next to the new Dodge Charger.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Im
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The Dodge Charger has a proud pedigree on the Nextel Cup Series.
Its revival last week during the first of two test sessions at the Daytona International Speedway is supposed to help Dodge run stride-for-stride with Ford and Chevrolet.
Dodge had only two drivers in the 10-team Chase for the Nextel Cup in 2004, with neither of them finishing among the top six. The car company hopes the new car will lead it to its first series championship since 1975.
Gone is the Intrepid, which has enjoyed moderate success since making its debut in 2001. Back, for a stock-car curtain call after 28 years, is the Charger.
"The Charger sounds like racing to me," said Richard Petty, who won three of his seven championships in a Charger. "Hopefully some of the Charger tradition will rub off on them."
It's no mistake the newest car in NASCAR looks a little like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the Ford Taurus. After all, more than half of the templates for all three cars are identical.
The only place a manufacturer can create a little brand identity is the hood and front and rear bumper areas.
"You know it's a Dodge by the way it's coming at you in the front because the grille looks a whole lot like the truck grille," Petty said. "I think the truck's been around long enough to distinguish the front end."
It may look like a Dodge pickup truck from the front and a Chevrolet or Ford stock car from the side, but the car company insists the car remains unique. It took a year for engineers to refine their front and rear bumpers to create speed.
"I think we're trying to verify everything we did with it in our development sessions in the off-season with all the wind tunnel work," said John Fernandez, director of Dodge Motorsports Operations.
"Obviously when you're in the wind tunnel, it's not the same as being on the track. Obviously at places like Daytona and Talladega, you need to get the car in the draft and make sure it works well in the draft. Those things are difficult to do in the wind tunnel."
Jeremy Mayfield was the only Dodge driver during the first three-day test last week to post a top-10 speed during single-car testing. His speed of 184.972 mph was sixth-fastest.
Most Dodge teams, however, were more concerned with how the car would act in packs of traffic.
The final session last Thursday made engineers and race teams alike smile. Four of the seven fastest speeds in traffic were from Dodges. Jamie McMurray was second-quickest at 186.459 mph, while Travis Kvapil was fourth at 186.181, Mayfield was fifth at 16.070 and Mike Skinner was seventh at 185.782.
Half of the Nextel Cup Series teams tested last week at Daytona. The other half -- including Dodge drivers Rusty Wallace, Jeff Green, Sterling Marlin and Scott Wimmer -- are testing this week.
Mayfield said this week's group will like their new cars.
"My car is driving good, but we made a lot of improvements, so it's hard to tell how much is the car. I'm sure the Charger has a lot to do with it. The areas we were weak last year, we've improved. And hopefully we've gained in areas we were strong," Mayfield said.
Years ago manufacturers used any of their production models as long as they satisfied NASCAR's rules for wheel-base dimensions, height and weight. The race-car body had to be within a half-inch of production specifications, which put the emphasis for results solely on the manufacturer, not NASCAR.
Now the sanctioning body has most of the control.
NASCAR creates a template for all of its cars and it's up to the manufacturer to work inside those boundaries. By making the cars more equal, it's easier for the sanctioning body to patrol the garage area and assure equality. Eventually, most feel, every car will be identical, distinguished only by a car company's decal.
Until then, manufacturers will spend a year trying to create both speed and brand identity -- even if it's only a couple bumpers.
"We were really pleased that the body came out as good as it came out," Kyle Petty said. "There's a few names around in the car business. You've got the T-Bird and the Mustang. The HEMI for Dodge, and I think the Charger is a name that brings back a lot of the '60s and the horsepower and get-up-and-go stuff. You've got the GTO and the Nova, but for Petty Enterprises, it's the Charger."
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