It’s been eight years, since Dodge pulled its factory-backing for NASCAR competition. While many have questioned the brand’s return, for years Mopar fans in the late-1990s had been asking similar questions. At that time, the sport was growing to a scale that it was competing with the National Football League (NFL) in terms of ratings. Dodge couldn’t have asked for a better chance to return to the sport after a 16-year hiatus.
In 2000 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), the Dodge brand announced it would be returning to NASCAR competition with a timeline set with competing in the 2001 Daytona 500. With only a year, to build an entire Cup program from scratch, the Dodge management team knew the right contacts and tapped the shoulder of 3-time championship-winning crew chief, Ray Evernham to lead the development team.
Evernham, would not only lead the development of the new Cup program for Dodge but would field a two-car team with direct factory backing and sponsorship from the nearly 3,000 Dodge Dealers, Mopar, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Realizing he had to find a solid driver lineup, Evernham approached 2-time Daytona 500 winner and 1988 Cup Series Champion Bill Elliott about joining his newly formed operation.
Elliott had been struggling to operate as an owner/driver. Elliott had been driving under the Ford umbrella since the mid-2000s and many thought of the Ford brand when Elliott’s name was mentioned. To his fan base, it seemed unthinkable for “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” would drive anything other than a car with a blue oval attached to it.
The story of how the partnership between, Bill Elliott, Ray Evernham, and Dodge recently became a subject highlighted on “The Scene Vault Podcast“. Elliott in his own words, tells for the reason he jumped manufacturers, as well as how quickly he made up his mind.
It was a career-changing experience for Elliott, who went on the be the most important name in the Dodge lineup going into the 2001 Winston Cup season. Elliott and Evernham however found success in its very first race in the No. 9 Dodge, as Elliott won the pole for the 2001 Daytona 500. It would also be the 50th pole of his career. Elliott finished his first season with Evernham Motorsports with two poles, five Top-5s, and nine Top-10 finishes, and one win at the Pennzoil Freedom 400 at Homestead from the pole. This was his first win since the Southern 500 in 1994, which ended his winless streak of 7 years and 226 races.
The following season, Elliott took the No. 9 Dodge to victory lane twice. The first win of the season came at the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono, while the second win was one of the most dominant victories at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the following week. He would go on finishing the 2002 season with a 13th point standings finish.
For 2003, Elliott ran his final full-time season. He took the No. 9 Dodge to victory at Rockingham, which would become the last win of his Cup career. A week later, Elliott came within a lap of winning his final race in his full-time career at the Ford 400 at Homestead. Elliott led 189 of 267 laps and was on his way to taking the checkered flag, but cut a tire on the final lap, allowing Bobby Labonte to score his most recent win. Elliott and his No. 9 team would place 9th in the standings, which would be his best finish in the points since 1997.
Bill, announced at the end of 2003, that he was handing over the reins of the No. 9 car to young upcoming star, Kasey Kahne. He then became a part-time driver competing in a few races and driving R&D cars for Evernham Motorsports in the No. 91 car.