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After a nearly 30-year absence, Charger returns to NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Charger. Speed. The King.

The words go hand in hand and bring back memories of NASCAR championships and stock car racing's greatest driver, Richard Petty.

After an absence of nearly 30 years, Charger returns to NASCAR this season. Four factory-backed Dodge Charger teams will race Sunday in the Daytona 500 and compete in the full Nextel Cup series.

Fourteen Chargers in all will be in the field, driven by the likes of Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield.

Chargers originally raced in NASCAR in 1966-77, and they won the Daytona 500 pole in 1971-73 and '77. John P. Wehrly was there at the beginning, and he will be there Sunday when the flag drops on 43 race cars in the Great American Race.

"The spirit, desire, the thought process -- it's there today the same as it was in the '60s and '70s," said Wehrly, senior manager of Dodge Motorsports Engineering and Mopar Racing Parts.

Wehrly lives in Madison Heights and works for DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills. At 66, he is as excited to be involved with the Charger program as he was when he worked as a development engineer with people like Petty and Petty's younger brother Maurice, when the Charger ruled NASCAR.

The return of Charger is the icing on the cake for Wehrly, who will retire this year.

"I'm very proud of this vehicle," said Wehrly, who grew up helping his dad at the family Dodge dealership in Portland, Ind. "We were here before, and now we have hopes of doing well in the future. It's sort of like starting out again."

Today's Dodge Chargers aren't as recognizable as Petty's baby blue No. 43, but Wehrly thinks the car will make a new name for itself.

"This is a really good race car," Wehrly said. "We know the GM product is the one to beat and the Fords are very good, but there's a real opportunity for the Charger to be in the winner's circle on Sunday."

The factory-backed drivers are Kahne and Mayfield (Evernham Motorsports); Newman, Rusty Wallace and Travis Kvapil (Penske Racing South); Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Kyle Petty and Jeff Green (Petty Enterprises).

Four other drivers also will be in Chargers -- Mike Skinner, Kevin Lepage, Scott Wimmer and Ken Schrader.

The current Charger wasn't built as a superspeedway car, Wehrly said.

It was designed to work in traffic on smaller tracks. But Wehrly won't discount its chances of winning Sunday.

"It's a longshot," said Wehrly. "But it's possible."

In the glory days, Petty won NASCAR championships in a Charger in 1972, '74 and '75. David Pearson took the title in 1966 and Bobby Isaac in 1970. The list of drivers who drove and won in a Charger is impressive: Petty, Pearson, Isaac, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Ray Elder, Dave Marcis and Neil Bonnett, among others.

Wehrly expects more names to be added soon.

"Performance on the track gave the Charger credibility," Wehrly said. "It wasn't just a marketing thing."

Wehrly runs marathons and works long hours. Retirement won't come easy to him, but he says he will take a shot at it.

"I've always been good at talking other people out of retiring, or sucking them back into work," he said. "But it's probably time."

Wehrly plans to leave after the Oct. 23 race at Martinsville, Va. He will have worked at Chrysler for 43 years, a special number in his life.

"I've been with the company 43 years, Richard carried 43 on his car, and I'm bowing out at Martinsville, where he won 15 races," Wehrly said. "Makes sense to me."

February 19, 2005
BY MIKE BRUDENELL
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER

Contact MIKE BRUDENELL at 313-222-2115 or [email protected].
 

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Richard Petty is,was,and always will be the KING OF NASCAR,with most wins ever!!!! Sorry jeff gordon fans!!! Well,I'm not really sorry,because King Richard Rules Nascar!!!!!!!!!!!! :D :cool:
 
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