Evernham seeks first victory

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Ray Evernham's drivers, Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood, will start 1-2 in the Pennzoil 400.

But he knows there's still a lot of work ahead for his team and Dodge.

Evernham, former crew chief for three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and now a first-year car owner, was picked by DaimlerChrysler to guide the Dodge program back into NASCAR's top division after a 16-year absence.

So far, the Intrepids have accounted for seven poles and three victories in 33 races this season. That includes two poles for former series champion Elliott and one for rookie Atwood.

For Evernham, those numbers are gratifying even though his team is yet to win.

While Gordon and new crew chief Robbie Loomis are closing on the championship -- going into Sunday's race with a 326-point lead over Ricky Rudd -- the Evernham Motorsports cars are 16th and 29th in the standings.

''Taking on the engine program and starting an engine shop and trying to start the two teams and doing the development for Dodge, it was a big job,'' Evernham said Saturday. ''My goal all through this is to build a championship organization one step at a time.''

Still, it does bother Evernham that while Sterling Marlin has given Chip Ganassi a pair of victories and Ward Burton has won for Bill Davis, his win column is empty.

''I play to win, but you've also got to be realistic,'' Evernham said. ''I'm not sick enough over it that I'm going to stick my head in the sand.

''A year ago, I basically had nothing. On Dec. 10, we had two Dodges and had taken over Bill Elliott's facility.''

But Evernham sees steady improvement in the cars and the pit stops, progress he hopes will soon make one of his drivers a winner.

Evernham is somewhat irked by talk in the garage area that a rule change by NASCAR in August has given the new Intrepids some sort of aerodynamic edge late in the season.

''From Indianapolis on, the Dodge has been a superior piece to anything else in the garage,'' said Doug Douchart, NASCAR group manager for General Motors. ''Every time we show up to a highly downforce-dependent track, such as Michigan, Charlotte, Kansas and now Homestead, you see a disproportionate number of Dodges toward the front -- especially in qualifying.''

Heading into Sunday's 267-lap race on the nearly flat 1 1/2-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway, Dodges hold six of the top 10 spots in the 43-car field. Still, Evernham bristles at talk of Dodge superiority.

''I get confused when they talk about all that,'' he said. ''What brand of car won Phoenix? What brand is leading the Winston Cup points? What's in second place? What's in third and fourth place? Where is the first Dodge?

The top Dodge is fifth, and the answers to the rest of Evernham's questions are the names of the other car manufacturers

''Every car has characteristics at different race tracks, period,'' Evernham said. ''For some reason, the Dodges are a little bit better at the flat tracks. I think it's got something to do with the engine combination. It could be aerodynamics.

''The point is, we've worked really hard on the flat-track program.''

A victory Sunday or in either of the last two races this season would be another big step forward for the determined Evernham.

''There's still some pretty big holes in our program,'' he said. ''We're still putting people in the right places. We've learned how to make the cars go fast at a couple of places, but not consistently everywhere.

''We've still got a ways to go before we're a weekly top-10 contender. I can't put a time limit on that. ... This is not a sport for weak people. When you take on the deal I took on, you'd better be tough. I'm going to stick it out and we're going to get there.''

Meanwhile, Gordon can close out Rudd by picking up 44 points Sunday. Even if he doesn't get it done this week, Gordon needs only to finish 28th or better in each of the last three races to join seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers with more than three titles.



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