Changing the rules
Dodge allowed to make aero changes starting next week
By Stephen Thomas, CNNSI.com
LONG POND, Pa. -- In 34 races last year, Sterling Marlin, John Andretti, Ward Burton and Bill Elliott combined for one win, eight top-5 and 33 top 10-finishes. Together, the four drivers led 710 laps. Through 19 races in 2001, the four, each of whom signed on for Dodge's much-trumpeted return to Winston Cup racing, have combined to earn nine top-5 and 20 top-10 finishes and have already led 455 laps.
In other words, by any reasonable standard, Marlin, Andretti, Burton and Elliott have already proven themselves more competitive than they were all of last year. That there are still 17 races remaining on the schedule makes it all but certain that the four will thoroughly batter the marks they established last year.
And yet, despite the improved performance enjoyed by that quartet in their first year as guinea pigs for Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing, NASCAR still saw fit to modify the Intrepids. It announced Friday that effective Aug. 1, the Dodges will be allowed to "extend their front air dam two inches forward below the bumper."
This modification to the front of the car will dramatically improve the Intrepid's handling, primarily at longer tracks like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where NASCAR will run next weekend.
"It's wrong," said an animated Frank Stoddard, crew chief for Jeff Burton. "It's an injustice to all the hardworking Ford teams, Pontiac teams. It's ridiculous, heading into the biggest race of the year. When they blew the cars earlier this year [tested them in the wind tunnel], those tests showed that the No. 40 car had more down force front and rear, better drag than the Ford Taurus. This is just factual information, if we want to turn this into a circus, a WWF circus, then go right on ahead."
Richard Childress, owner of GM cars driven by Kevin Harvick and Mike Skinner, was equally angry and much more succinct in expressing his displeasure. "It's [expletive]ing bull[expletive]," Childress said when he heard of the change.
"It's exciting if you're on the Dodge side, man," said Robbie Loomis, crew chief of Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet. "It's big, it's real big. It's important. The Dodge's haven't won this year, [NASCAR] wants to see close competition, they probably figure the points thing is settling down with Ford and Chevrolet, maybe they'll get a Dodge in there to mix it up a little bit. It's hard to say."
Herb Branham, NASCAR manager of communications, said that director Gary Nelson would be available to answer questions about the rule change and its impact Saturday.
According to anyone who doesn't drive a Dodge Intrepid, it's especially galling that NASCAR should choose to enlarge the nose of the Dodge while at the same ignore the aero complaints that Ford and Pontiac drivers have been airing for more than a year (the nose of the Chevrolet was extended last year).
"It doesn't seem really fair," said Pat Tryson, crew chief for Elliott Sadler's Ford. "They already got twice as much kick-out built into their nose as we do. It's going to be hard for a Ford to win a race."
Tryson explained just what the rule change means in practical terms.
"Imagine putting an extra 100 pounds on the front of your car," he said. "It's going to let you plant your front tires so that [the car] turns that much better. I know that everyone has been fighting for [the change], I know Ford is, Pontiac is, Dodge is. I guess the only ones they decided to give it to was the Dodge. We're all trying to get what they got."
"Well, I think the Dodge should have the two inches of nose since the Chevrolet got it," said owner Jack Roush. "But the Ford should have got it before the Dodge did because the Dodge is a second generation Ford. That's the issue that I've got a problem with: if NASCAR gave us the consideration to go back and build a new Ford, we'd build something that was closer to the Dodge."
Needless to say, Dodge drivers and their representatives have a wholly different interpretation of the change.
"You just can't put something on expect an overnight [change]," said Ray Evernham, owner of Elliott's No. 9. "I imagine it will make for a better balanced race car, but then we've got to find what to do with that balance. It's definitely a change for the better, but we've never run it in traffic, we've only run it in a wind tunnel. It's not something that's a bolt-on thing, we're going to have to work with it."
But at least Dodge now has the luxury of working with it. And as angry as that may have made many in the garage, there was the issue of exactly how many first heard of the change -- from the media.
"I just saw it on the news," said Travis Carter, owner of Jimmy Spencer's Ford. "Gee whiz, squeaky wheel gets the grease, I guess."
Then still, there was the issue of the timing of the rule change.
"Seems like every other time we've had a rule change it's come on the heels of a wind tunnel test that showed that there was a deficiency of downforce in that particular make," said Steve Hmiel, acting crew chief for Waltrip's Chevrolet. "For this thing to just suddenly appear before Indianapolis when you need a ton of downforce, without understanding if there have been a bunch of tests run to justify it, is upsetting. This isn't to say that NASCAR hasn't thoroughly researched this, but there certainly hasn't been a buzz around the garage about it coming, nor have there been any real public wind tunnel tests to show that it's justifiable.
"It's a little unnerving."