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Dodge needs more Sterling efforts

The automaker's comeback continues, with Marlin leading the way.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 9, 2001


The crowning moment of Sterling Marlin's Winston Cup season will come the day he drives away from a track in his new Dodge Viper. At least that's what he's hoping.

If Marlin were able to do that, it would be significant for two reasons. First, it would mean Marlin found his way back to Victory Lane for the first time since Talladega in 1996. Second, it would signal Dodge's successful return to stock car racing after a 16-year hiatus.

The only problem is there is no guarantee that Dodge will give the first driver to win a race this season the Viper that Marlin desperately desires. Of course, the way things have gone this season, there's no guarantee Marlin or any of the other nine Dodge drivers will be able to earn that first win.

As a group the 10 drivers have recorded six top-five finishes and 13 top 10s. Marlin is the main reason for that, recording three top fives and seven top 10s.

Despite being one of the last teams to switch to Dodge, the move has paid off for Marlin, whose average finish in the standings the past four years is 18th. He has been the most consistent Dodge driver and is fifth in the standings, earning nearly $1.2-million. His third-place showing at Las Vegas is the second-best Dodge finish this season, bettered only by John Andretti's second place at Bristol.

After the first 12 points races, Marlin said his team still is figuring out the difference between his No. 40 Dodge Intrepid and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo he drove to 19th in the standings last season.

"We're way different from what we were last year," Marlin said. "We started pretty fresh. We were one of the last teams to get started with Dodge, but I think the guys have done a great job working on it. One thing about them, they don't quit. I think by the end of the year we're just going to get better and better."

Marlin, who will turn 44 on June 30, would seem to have the inside track on the rest of the Dodge drivers, running on a team owned by racing legend Chip Ganassi. Ganassi competed in the CART series, driving in five consecutive Indianapolis 500s before becoming an owner. As an owner, Ganassi won four CART titles from 1996-99. He announced Aug. 4 that he was becoming the majority owner of Sabates Racing and would run Marlin's Dodge this season.

One of the biggest problems has been getting Ganassi to adapt to the Winston Cup cars while still running two cars on the CART circuit. With his time split between the two series -- he was scarcely around Marlin's team during the month preceding the Indianapolis 500 -- that learning process has been hindered.

"I haven't heard a word (from Ganassi in May)," Marlin said. "He's been tied up at Indy. We like him being around, but he's still learning Winston Cup. Stuff is a lot different here than in CART."

Another problem for Marlin and the rest of the Dodge team has been switching to the new chassis and figuring out the new, harder tires the teams are running this season. Although the new aero packages are also confounding some teams.

"We almost went back to where we started tonight," said Buckshot Jones, driver of the No. 44 Dodge. "Our biggest thing is the aero package, not the chassis."

The problems were never more evident than at Lowe's Motor Speedway where John Andretti and Kyle Petty each failed to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600. Marlin, on the other hand, qualified 26th and finished 15th. He was sixth Sunday at the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover Downs.

"I think that our guys have done a good job with it," Marlin said. "We have good bodies, we have our own fab shop now. If you look at the chassis numbers from California we're a little behind there, but Ernie Elliott and all them guys have knocked them back up and we're a little more powerful.

"It seems like that's maybe where we're behind just a tick. I think we've been close all year. It's just a little power here, a little power there. We just have to get it all put together and we'll be okay. Our stuff's been off a little bit, but I'm going to get through the year and try to get a good combination."

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