NASCAR: The Evolution of the Sport (2001-2005)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IFebruary 9, 2010

In 2001, the Dodge division of Chrysler Corp. announced it would return to NASCAR Cup Series racing for the first time since the late 1970s.

They assembled a formidable team.

Ray Evernham, who left the Hendrick Motor Sports Chevrolet operation in 1999, was hired by MoPar to direct Dodge's effort. Evernham was in charge of Dodge's two-car flagship team with drivers Casey Atwood and Bill Elliott.

Other Dodge teams included Bill Davis Racing, Felix Sabates, Melling Racing, and Petty Enterprises, which returned to the Chrysler fold for the first time since 1978.

But the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season was also marked with sadness, as a terrible crash in the final laps of the Daytona 500 took the life of skilled driver and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt.

Michael Waltrip nipped Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the finish line to win the Daytona 500.

Kevin Harvick, who was brought in as a replacement driver for the late Dale Earnhardt, stunningly won the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in only his third career NASCAR Winston Cup start.

2001 saw many other triumphs, including Bill Elliott winning again for the first time since 1994, but the season was largely overshadowed by the tragedy of Dale Earnhardt earlier in the year.

Robby Gordon sped to his first NASCAR Winston Cup win in the season finale at New Hampshire International Speedway after the race was postponed from Sept. 16 beacause of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Jeff Gordon nabbed his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup title by 349 points over Tony Stewart.

The 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season dawned with promise as NBC television broadcast the Daytona 500 for the first time, and a new crop of rookie drivers (including Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman) captured headlines.

Excitement continued throughout the season, as the points race remained the tightest seen in several years. 

Ward Burton scored an upset win in the Daytona 500, leading only the final five laps.

Sterling Marlin was penalized by NASCAR when he pulled a fender off his right front tire during a late red flag. NASCAR rules prohibit work from being done to a car during a red-flag situation. Marlin wheeled his Dodge to victory later that year, in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway.

Tony Stewart gave team owner Joe Gibbs his second NASCAR Winston Cup title in three years with a come-from-behind victory in the championship chase of 2002.

The season got off to a rocky start for the versatile Stewart, who finished last in the Feb. 17 Daytona 500.

He clawed his way into contention by late summer and moved to the lead in early October. Stewart won three races during the year and beat runner-up Mark Martin by 38 points. 

In many ways, the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup season was a season of change. Before the racing season even began, an announcement by R.J. Reynolds began a series of shifting sponsors that would continue throughout the year and take full effect in 2004.

Planned changes in rules and race scheduling also promised that 2003 would be the last NASCAR season of its kind.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. also stepped down during 2003 and passed the position to his son Brian.

On the track, a surprising points victory by Matt Kenseth kept fans captivated all season long. Find out all the changes announced for NASCAR during 2003 (and see exciting race pictures from the season) with our 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup chronology.

In what could probably best be described as “foreshadowing" for the future of NASCAR, under its new leadership, sophomore Ryan Newman’s No. 12 Dodge was destroyed in a spectacular crash on the 56th lap of the Daytona 500.

Ken Schrader's No. 49 Dodge was also clipped by Ward Burton, triggering a pileup. Schrader's car veered into the path of Ryan Newman, who went airborne and flipped violently into the infield grass along the front chute. Newman's car disintegrated into a million pieces, but, fortunately, the talented sophomore escaped unharmed.

With a fourth-place finish in the Pop Secret 400 at Rockingham's North Carolina Speedway, Matt Kenseth wrapped up his first NASCAR Winston Cup Championship.

Prior to the Awards Banquet in December, reports surfaced that NASCAR would adopt a new points procedure to determine the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion.

NASCAR adjusted the points awarded to race winners, and developed a 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup. The top 10 in the points standings after the 26th race qualified for the final 10-race chase.

One note of interest for the 2004 NASCAR season (in addition to its now being known as the NASCAR NEXTEL season) was new chairman Brian Z France.

France decided to move the sport west. Texas and Phoenix tracks gained a second event, while Rockingham's North Carolina Speedway hosted its last. 

The most noticeable change for 2004 was indeed, a revamping of the points race into the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," which narrowed the field of contenders for the final races of the season.

In response, the points race in 2004 was the closest in NASCAR history and television ratings surged 30 percent over their 2003 levels.

Roush Racing hit the jackpot to wind down 2004, as Greg Biffle won the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Kurt Busch finished fifth to claim the 2004 "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" championship.

Bush's eight-point margin over Jimmie Johnson was the closest finish in the 56 years of NASCAR Cup Series racing.

The 2005 season started out with a bang, as Jeff Gordon squeaked past Tony Stewart in the waning laps to win the first Daytona 500 in history to go into overtime. The race was also the first for the new Dodge Charger, which replaced the Intrepid.

In more changes to tweak The Chase, Greg Biffle won the first night race at Darlington Raceway. The race went into overtime when a yellow flag came out after Mark Martin spun with four laps to go.

The caution erased Ryan Newman's four-second lead in what was to become a new trend in caution flags during the final laps of a race.  The race was Biffle's third win of the season and the fifth win in 10 races for Roush Racing.

Tony Stewart and his entire crew scaled the fence at Indianapolis Motor Speedway following the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Though new to NASCAR, the spider-like celebration was made popular by Indy Racing League driver Helio Castroneves.

Stewart started 22nd but ran down the favorites to win his second consecutive race in a flourish that would see him win five out of seven NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events and the Nextel Cup Championship for 2005.

Although neither Jeff Gordon, nor Dale Earnhardt, Jr., qualified for the Chase portion of the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season, fans remained captivated by the decision on the title that came down to the very last race.

Veteran driver Rusty Wallace also retired at the end of the 2005 season and began a new career as a commentator for ESPN.


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