Qualifying today at Daytona International Speedway is a day like no other in 24 years.
Dodge is back.
For the first time since 1977, Dodge will compete against Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac in Winston Cup stock car racing and try to win the pole for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.
The long-absent carmaker, which enjoyed enormous success from 1950 through 1977, winning seven Winston Cup titles and 160 races overall, is returning after a self-imposed hiatus.
Dodge decided at the end of the 1977 season, a season in which it won seven races, that the sport no longer fit its marketing needs. But now, more than two decades later, Dodge and its parent, DaimlerChrysler, see an opportunity to improve the brand's stature by returning Dodge to stock car racing.
And it is doing it in style.
Five teams. Ten cars.
Ray Evernham, the former high-profile crew chief of three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, is directing the overall program and will have two cars of his own sponsored by Dodge, in partnership with its 3,000 Dodge dealers. Driving will be Bill Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup champion and 15-time most popular driver, and rookie Casey Atwood.
Petty Enterprises returns to the fold with three cars. Driving will be Kyle Petty - who, with his father, Richard, is attempting to return the team to the top of the sport - John Andretti, a three-time race winner, and rookie Buckshot Jones.
Bill Davis, who gave series champion Bobby Labonte his first full-time Winston Cup ride, will field cars for Ward Burton, who charged into the Winston Cup top five last season, and Dave Blaney, the former World of Outlaws champion.
Melling Racing, now operated by Mark Melling and the team for which Elliott won his championship and fame as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville [Ga.]," will field one car for Stacy Compton, who moves from the Craftsman Truck Series.
Chip Ganassi, whose cars won four straight Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) championships and who is now the majority owner of Felix Sabates' teams, will have two cars driven by Sterling Marlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, and Jason Leffler, who is moving up from the Busch Series.
It is a curious mix, as Dodge has gathered former competitors from Ford, Chevy and Pontiac under its large umbrella. It also has a curious mix of many subplots.
Will Evernham be able to create for a second time the magic he had at Hendrick's Racing with Gordon? Will Elliott, who hasn't won a race since 1994, re-emerge in the winner's circle? Will Kyle Petty's plans to jump-start Petty Enterprises back to the top of the sport by returning to Dodge, where his dad won three of his seven championships, work? Will Melling's single-car team find success in a predominantly multi-team field? And will Ganassi, who brings new vigor to the fading Sabates organization, be able to do in Winston Cup racing what he did in CART - dominate?
And then, of course, there is the other question:
Will the new Intrepid R/T perform well and do what Dodge hopes - create a new excitement for its product and increase sales?
"Racing is an established brand-building tool that, in the case of NASCAR's Winston Cup Series, helps position Dodge as our company's performance brand in North America," said Jim Julow, vice president at Dodge Global Brand Center. "But, we wouldn't be here if we didn't think we could use the marketing leverage NASCAR racing provides better than our competitors."
It will help if Dodge runs well today and in the 125-mile qualifying races next Thursday. If all 10 cars make the field, Dodges will account for nearly one-fourth of the starting lineup and give credibility to the company's unusual "One Team" approach.
Under the direction of Evernham, all of the teams have worked together to produce what they hope will be a strong opening act in this new season. That, alone, is a major achievement in stock car racing, where keeping secrets from fellow competitors is a long-standing way of life.
"Our program will work," said Kyle Petty, "if all of us work together six days a week and then race against each other on Sunday."
A strong building block for the program, and one that particularly appealed to Kyle Petty because he felt his family team had fallen behind modern racing technology with Pontiac, is that every team in it gets everything. There is no pecking order.
"You get the wind-tunnel test time you need," said Marlin, whose team drove Chevrolets before joining Dodge. "You don't have to beg or plead. I bet we got to spend more time testing in the tunnel before this season than we did in the last five years combined. And the technical people were there to help us."
Still, there have been rough spots.
"It's very easy to get wrapped up ... in your own world," said Andy Graves, Marlin's team manager. "It's taken a few calls from Dodge saying, `OK, guys, come on. We've got to have this information.' "
But, finally they've arrived here, amid bluster from other drivers that they've already had an unfair advantage.