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MANUFACTURERS Dodge's victory by Newman at Texas creates optimism



Published: Sun, April 6, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



But DaimlerChrysler still feels that it is not getting enough for its investment.

THE SPORTING NEWS

Just hours before Ryan Newman scored Dodge's first victory of the season last Sunday at Texas, three of the manufacturer's bigwigs huddled with Mike Helton in the NASCAR trailer.

Helton, NASCAR's president, can pull many strings. But unless he gave Tony Stewart's impounded Chevrolet to Newman and told the team to hang Dodge sheet metal on it -- this is NASCAR, it could happen -- the fact the No. 12 wound up in victory lane simply was coincidence. It couldn't have come at a better time.

Sending a message

A little more than two weeks ago, before the race at Bristol, Dieter Zetsche assembled the Dodge teams for a meeting at corporate headquarters. Zetsche, the CEO of DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, was not happy. His message: the Dodge teams need a victory, and they need it now.

So in stepped Newman to save the day, or at least to give the Dodge boys a little more wiggle room.

But Zetsche's concern still is justified. With the investment DaimlerChrysler is making this season -- especially after bringing Penske Racing with Newman and Rusty Wallace on board -- it isn't getting much bang for its buck.

Seven races into last season, Dodge teams had three wins and two poles. Sterling Marlin took the points lead in the second race, at Rockingham, and held it into September.

Dodge's best 2003 finish before Newman's win was a fifth by rookie Jamie McMurray at Rockingham. Newman jumped seven positions, to eighth, in the points standings, but Wallace, at 14th, is the only other Dodge driver in the top 15.

So where has the Dodges' ability to perform gone? Considering DaimlerChrysler's resources, the juggernauts of Ganassi Racing and Evernham Motorsports should not be getting spanked by the competition.

Against the odds

The problem is not simple to solve. NASCAR has put the Dodge teams on a mechanical merry-go-round that would be difficult for the best rocket scientists to make sense of.

All of the cars in Winston Cup are overengineered and far too dependent on aerodynamics.

Since Dodge returned to Cup competition at the start of 2001, its cars have gone through an inordinate number of changes. Testing that should have helped make competitive cars stronger instead has been used to make the cars merely competitive.

Changes mandated for the noses of the cars have the Dodge teams scrambling to find aerodynamic balance -- having the front downforce match the rear downforce with all four tires working in unison. The lack of aero balance makes it difficult for drivers to turn through the corners without the car getting loose. That issue is complicated by new body location rules that made the Dodge setups from last year obsolete.

Though Newman says the Texas victory doesn't mean his team has solved all of its problems, there is more optimism -- and there is some proof that a Dodge can run up front in race trim and win.




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