ATLANTA -- Now that questions about getting up to speed on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series are answered, Dodge now has a different question for 2002: Can it win a championship?
Sterling Marlin certainly carved through the uncertainty of an unproven engine program and an unproven Intrepid body style quicker than his Dodge teammates, and his ability to run door to door with the race-ready Fords, Chevrolets and Pontiacs has some thinking he could be a contender next season.
''I think we can be right there close contending for the title next season,'' Marlin said. ''A lot of ifs will be involved, but we had five finishes of 32nd or worse (last) season. If we could have replaced three of those with top-fives, we would have been right there this year.''
CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE: Robin Pemberton shocked the sport with his resignation a week ago from Rusty Wallace's team, but that proved to be only the start of a trend.
Three other crew chiefs since have changed jobs.
Todd Parrott gave up his role with driver Dale Jarrett to become the team manager. Jim my Elledge then quit Bobby Hamilton's team at Andy Petree Racing to take Parrott's job.
Jim Long left the Ultra Motorsports team to take over Terry Labonte's Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Gary De Hart, who led Labonte to the 1996 Winston Cup Series Champ ionship, moved into a position at Hendrick's research and development department.
And Chris Knaus, whose Mel ling Racing team is on the brink of bankruptcy unless it finds a sponsor, quit to work with rookie Jimmie Johnson on a new team being fielded by Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports.
Also, Mark Martin's crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and Kurt Busch's crew chief, Ben Leslie, swapped jobs at Roush Racing.
The shakeup, especially with Pemberton and Parrott, means crew chief Jimmy Makar and driver Bobby Labonte now have the longest-standing working relationship in the sport. They joined forces in 1995.
PIT STOPS: NASCAR this week told all of its teams that crewmen who go over the wall during pit stops now are required to wear helmets and fire suits. ... Robert Pressley has agreed to drive a Dodge Ram for Bobby Hamilton Racing on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series next year. ... A.J. Foyt has narrowed the list of candidates to drive his No. 14 Pontiac on the Winston Cup Series to Stacy Compton and Kevin Lepage. Compton has agreed to drive the No. 59 Chevrolet in the Busch Series for the next two years.
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