The 2002 UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour hosted by Lowe's Motor Speedway began to draw to a close on Thursday, as we visited four race shops representing some of the best talent in NASCAR.
The first stop on the tour was Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates located in Mooresville, NC. Sterling Marlin, driver of the #40 Coors Light Dodge, one of his best years in 2001 - he tied a career high 3rd place finish in the point standings, notching two wins, 12 top-5's and 20 top-10's. With Daytona just a few weeks away, Marlin has his sights set on winning a championship this season.
"Last season was a great start for us," Marlin said, "We're looking to build on that success and bring home a championship. This team definitely has the drive and talent to accomplish that goal in 2002."
"We know what this team is capable of and we're ready to perform," team co-owner Chip Ganassi said. "No one on this team is afraid of setting high goals and working to accomplish those goals."
Marlin was all smiles when it came to new teammate Jimmy
Marlin made history for Dodge last season, scoring the first Winston Cup victory for the automaker since 1977 by taking the checkered flag at the Pepsi 400 at Michigan last August, and followed it up with a win in the UAW-GM 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway later in October. This year, Marlin has a new teammate as Jimmy Spencer takes over the driver seat of the second car in Ganassi's two-car stable - the #41 Target Dodge.
"This is an opportunity that a driver can't pass up," Spencer said. "Target and Chip (Ganassi) have proven year after year that they know that they have a winning formula, so I'm excited to be a part of that equation this year."
"I know I still have the talent and the desire to win, and from day one, it's been clear that Chip's goals are the same as mine. I'm looking forward to a great season."
Marlin said he was happy to have Spencer as a teammate.
"I've known Jimmy since about '88, known him on and off through the years." Marlin said, "We like a lot of the same things on the race car and I think he'll be a benefit to the team this year on some chassis setups."
"I'd rather have him on my team than as an opponent."
Ganassi was questioned about whether or not Marlin and Spencer will mesh, given their different personalities.
Spencer will drive the Ganassi Target Intrepid in '02.
"I don't think Jimmy and Sterling are far apart in personality. I think they're of the same personality." Ganassi said, "They drive the same car, and they speak the same language about cars. I think there can be a lot of speed there. I would compare it to Ricky (Rudd) and Dale (Jarrett) at Robert Yates (Racing). I think there's a lot of speed in that."
One of eleven teams currently racing the Dodge Intrepid, this visit was the first chance for the media to find out firsthand how the Dodges are faring in testing at Daytona, which concluded on Thursday.
Marlin has been one of many drivers who have been pushing NASCAR to make changes to restrictor plate racing, to give the cars more horsepower to allow them to eliminate the tight packs of cars and three-wide racing that have become a common sight at NASCAR's two restrictor plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega. A new aero package put in place by NASCAR for the upcoming Daytona 500 has gone a long way to improve competition and safety.
"I think the new aero package will make it safer." Marlin said, "It will definitely take out the three-deep, four-deep racing. With what we got now, you're going to have to think a little bit more before you pass. Definitely, I think you're not going to see that three-deep racing much."
"We're back running around 183 (mph) again. I was hoping we'd be up around 192 or 194. I'm hoping NASCAR will look at it and let us at least run 192 or 195."
The tour's second stop was Evernham Motorsports, the headquarters for Dodge's return to NASCAR. Evernham, formerly the crew chief for Winston Cup driver Jeff Gordon, was chosen in 1999 to lead Dodge back into Winston Cup. His two-car, Dodge-sponsored team, driven by Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood, captured three poles in 2001, with Elliott getting the pole in the season opening Daytona 500, as well as the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead in November, and Atwood getting the pole at Phoenix in October. Elliott also scored the team's first win, and the fourth for Dodge, at Homestead.
engineering research and development center will be
available for all the Dodge teams.
Evernham unveiled his new, state-of-the-art, 52,600 square-foot race shop. This new facility, located right next to the existing 46,000 square-foot shop, will house the Dodge engineering research and development center. All the Dodge Motorsports teams will have access to the new shop, continuing in the "one-team" concept that all the Dodge teams share.
"It is important for Evernham Motorsports to be a leader both on and off the track...we're investing our money in people and technology," said Ray Evernham. "That is where this sport is headed...It's been hard work getting here. I've been lucky enough to get this opportunity and I'm going to work as hard as I can to make the most of it. We want to be part of NASCAR Winston Cup racing for a long time."
In additional to Bill Elliott driving the #9 Dodge, the team enters 2002 with a new driver at the wheel of the #19 Dodge as Jeremy Mayfield comes over from Penske Racing to replace Casey Atwood.
old "Flemington Modified" is on display at his
Evernham Motorsports showroom.
Casey Atwood, who began his rookie season in 2001 with Evernham Motorsports, moved into the drivers seat of the #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge. Evernham bought into the team at the end of last season and the team switched car manufacturers from Ford to Dodge, making it a third team under the Evernham Motorsports banner.
"It's a good deal," said Atwood. "It expands Evernham Motorsports to three teams, and that's just one more team and one more driver to learn things from and brings a lot experience in. It's a good deal for me."
"I'm going to just keep learning. I want to win a race this year, I think I had a couple good shots last year and I'm real pumped up about this season."
The next stop on the tour was Roush Racing, home to five Winston Cup teams, two Busch Series teams and two Craftsman Truck Series teams. Roush Racing announced some new sponsorships, as well as introduce the new crew chiefs for the #6 Viagra Ford of Mark Martin and the #97 Sharpie/Rubbermaid Ford driven by Kurt Busch.
Martin struggled most of last year, recording his best finish of the year at the second-to-last race of 2001 at Atlanta, finishing 2nd. Martin finished 12th in the 2001 Winston Cup standings, with three top-5's and 15 top-10's. It was the first time Martin has finished outside the top ten in the Winston Cup standings since 1988.
"Last season didn't really eat on me at all. That one is behind us." Martin said. "All the eating that went on was during the season, from February to November. I'm really excited about 2002. There's an awful lot to be excited about here, and we are ready to get going."
"I'm really glad we still have another four weeks until Daytona, because we're going to make good use of that time preparing, so that hopefully when we come out of the gate, we'll come out strong."
In an effort to improve the performance of both the #6 and #97, the two teams will switch crew chiefs for the 2002 season. Ben Leslie takes over as crew chief of the #6, while Jimmy Fennig moves over to the #97.
"I'm real excited about it, about the new look and the new thought process." Martin said, "I'm only as good as the people around me."
Second year driver Kurt Busch, who finished second to Kevin Harvick in the Rookie Of The Year battle last season, is hoping the new changes will help the team rebound from a disappointing season.
"Our objective is to turn everything around 180 degrees from what we had last year." Busch said, "The result we had last year isn't what we expected. We have a whole new outlook, I've got Jimmy Fennig next to me with a plethora of experience with his crew. I'm real excited about it. It's going to be completely different."
Martin also had praise for the new aero package being used on the cars at Daytona. He agreed the new package is safer over what was in place before.
"It's going to be a lot safer than the other package we had." Marlin said, "What made the other package unsafe is that you made a pass when you shouldn't be passing, and this package will take that away."
Busch, two Craftsman truck, and five Winston Cup cars
make up Roush Racing.
"I think we can put 30 cars in a draft with this package, and there will be plenty of opportunity to pass, but it's more of a strategy race. With the other package, all it was was a bunch of cars out there that were moving around, front to back, front to back, going around in that back. Then it was over, and whoever was in front won the race."
Martin's car will also have a new look for the upcoming Bud Shootout. As part of a new sponsorship package, Martin will run a special paint scheme promoting eight Kraft brands that will be associate sponsors on all five Winston Cup cars in the Roush stable.
The final stop of the day was a visit to Rusty Wallace's shop in Mooresville. Wallace and new teammate Ryan Newman arrived by helicopter after returning from a day of testing at Daytona.
"We spent four days trying to get the cars running. We had a lot of great runs today," Wallace said. "Ryan ran some laps, I ran some laps. The cars seem to draft real good. The biggest concern right now is we can't get the car to run fast by itself, so NASCAR is looking right now into giving us some spoiler to speed us up a little bit."
"The handling, and the horsepower and the way they're drafting, is real good. I was real impressed on how they drafted. They weren't all over each other, they weren't beating on each other, but they were close and we could make passes, so I think you're going to see a good Daytona 500. Think this is the correct rule."
Rusty Wallace also talked about his new crew chief, Bill Wilburn, who takes over for Robin Pemberton.
"I'm really comfortable with Bill as my crew chief." Wallace said, "We sat down and said there has to be someone in this organization that's been around for a long time and has some talent that we can tap instead of going out and finding somebody. We kicked the idea around and we all thought Bill would be a great choice for our team."
"He's been with me for a long, long time, he's a real Rusty and Team Penske believer. He's excited about it. I know that we're going to have a great year."
Newman has run at Daytona under similar rules in the ARCA series, which could give him an edge over some of the other young drivers in the field.
"The test was really interesting for me. The new rules that NASCAR has created are a lot like the ARCA rules I races with in Daytona last year," said Newman, "so I think I have some experience working with those type of rules."
Newman will be contending along with Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson for rookie of the year honors in 2002. With both drivers affiliated with strong teams, it could be a tight race.
"We're in a very similar situation, with Jimmie having a mentor like Jeff Gordon and me having a mentor like Rusty Wallace, both racing for big teams - Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing." Newman said, "With all those thing in common, it's going to be tight, a lot of it's going to be just racing luck - whose good where, who's good when. I think it's going to be a great race (for rookie of the year)."
Penske Racing also announced they have extended their associate sponsorship agreements with ExxonMobile and Sony for the #12 Alltel Ford.
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