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Dodge drivers adjusting to new Charger

Mark Armijo
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Question marks punctuate the start of every NASCAR season, and Dodge drivers may be facing the most uncertainty in 2005.

In addition to adjusted rear spoiler heights and qualifying procedures and a softer tire compound for all car makes, Dodge drivers must deal with a new body design.

Dodge Motorsports chose to park last season's Intrepid and replace it with the Charger, a model last fielded nearly 30 years ago and one that Richard Petty made famous in the 1970s.

Time will tell how effective the Charger will be. Daytona 500 practice starts this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, but the Feb. 20 season opener won't paint a clear picture because of restrictor plate rules evening the field.

Petty doesn't believe Dodge teams will be at a disadvantage against Ford and Chevrolet drivers.

"Under the rules and regulations that NASCAR puts you in now, the car is basically the same," Petty said. "It might have a different grille and tail light, but it's basically the same car as we had last year. The big change this year is going to be taking the spoiler away from it.

"Ford and Chevrolet have the same car, but it's going to be a new car to them because of the spoiler situation. We've got a new car, but it's really aerodynamically the same."

Down the road, Dodge drivers such as Rusty Wallace will know if the manufacturer has provided a bullet or a car with square wheels.

At recent preseason tests at Daytona and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Wallace was pleased with initial results.

"My car ran great at Daytona," Wallace told reporters at the Las Vegas test. "I guess if I only had one concern, it would be about the grille possibly trapping debris.

"I think the nose is a better design. It definitely looks cooler. A fellow came up to me and said, 'Man, that thing looks mean.' I like the way my car feels on the soft tires."

Kyle Petty also had a favorable first impression.

"We were really pleased that the body came out as good as it came out," he said. "I've tested the Charger at Kentucky three or four times, and our down force stuff is really good."

Richard "Slugger" Labbe, crew chief for Jeremy Mayfield, also liked the numbers from the Daytona test.

"It's been pretty good so far," Labbe said. "It's been driving good, and the times have been decent."

The true test, Mayfield said, will occur in actual race conditions.

"We won't know a lot about the car until we run a few races, obviously, but we know there's going to be a little bit of a learning curve," Mayfield said. "The trick is going to be how fast we can adapt to all the changes. I think it's going to be a good car. It looks good. It looks racy."

Dodge Operations Director John Fernandez believes time will prove the decision to switch to the Charger a wise one.

"Everything we've done in testing so far suggests we've got a car that's as good as the car we had last year," Fernandez said. "I think we're going to win a lot of races this year.

"The Charger name has charisma. It takes you back to the early days of NASCAR, and we're excited about it. Being in a Dodge Charger is a little bit different than being in a Dodge Intrepid."
On the make
Dodge returned to NASCAR Nextel (then Winston) Cup racing with the Intrepid in 2001 after a 16-year absence. This season, it returns to the Charger model with which Richard Petty won the 1973 and 1974 Daytona 500. Dodge plans to field four teams and 10 drivers Feb. 20 at Daytona. Chevy has won the Daytona 500 16 times - Ford has 10 titles - and has dominated the series in total wins since the modern era began in 1972.

Year Ford Chevy Dodge Pont.
2000 14 9 0 11
2001 11 16 4 5
2002 14 10 7 5
2003 7 19 9 1
2004 10 22 4 0
'00-'04 56 76 24 22
Modern era 273 432 73 85
All-time 554 556 184 154

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