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SHINY, NEW AND LOADED
FROM CARS TO TV DEALS, NASCAR'S 2001 MODEL HAS THAT SHOWROOM LOOK

You think new car showrooms are overwhelming? Check out the sales pitch for the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season.

New cars! New manufacturer! New TV package! More races! More money! New paint schemes! New Web site!

The return of Dodge after 17 years, Fox and NBC taking over the in-car cameras and the on-track return of Ray Evernham are just a few of the storylines vroom-ing into the new season. The engines get fired Sunday for the Daytona 500, and the road doesn't end until Nov. 18 in Atlanta. That's 36 races, with just three weekends off.

Here's what you need to know before taking the shiny 2001 model for a spin:

Ray returns in a new ride

In the late 1990s, Ray Evernham was Obi-Wan Kenobi to Jeff Gordon's Luke Skywalker, dominating Winston Cup with three titles in four years.

Evernham left his post as crew chief for Gordon and the DuPont team late in 1999 and took his genius to DaimlerChrysler, where he oversaw the highly publicized return of Dodge to Winston Cup.

Among the 10 Intrepids being fielded this season are two that will run for Evernham's own team - vet Bill Elliott and rookie Casey Atwood - and all Evernham and Elliott did last week was win the pole for the sport's greatest race.

If Evernham can reproduce any of the magic that he had with Gordon, Ford, Chevy and Pontiac will be dodging Dodges all season.

Winning titles in 1995, '97 and '98, Evernham and Gordon were to Winston Cup what Tiger Woods is now to the PGA Tour: There was the No. 24 car, and then there was the rest of the field. Since Evernham left Gordon, the NASCAR poster boy has lost quite a bit of his luster. One could even argue that Evernham - in helping Gordon achieve superstar cross-over status with non-racing fans and advertisers - helped push up the price of NASCAR's TV product.

Adjusting the dial

A six-year, $2.4 billion television contract - which has helped pump up purses - has Fox taking the first half of the season before NBC takes the wheel. That means more races on network TV, something sponsor-savvy NASCAR loves.

The network that created the glowing hockey puck and supplied rock music soundtracks to baseball lineups will certainly rev up coverage in its own way. Fox has already incorporated cars' color schemes into the running order that scrolls across the screen and the leader boards.

Also in typical Fox style, the network already attempted the equivalent of a Dale Earnhardt nudge-and-run. For last Sunday's Bud Shootout, it only showed expanded car graphics and logos for sponsors that had purchased advertising time with the network. After a harried huddle with NASCAR on Tuesday, Fox agreed it will show the graphics for all cars' sponsors.

Who can win the Cup

Tony Stewart - After Bobby Labonte's championship season, the other half of the Joe Gibbs-owned garage is eager - and very able - to prove they can win, too. Stewart won the most races last season (six), and is driven by a surly streak that rivals any driver. After he won the Bud Shootout, his first words were about how much he hated restrictor plates. Hey Tony, you won the race. But with that kind of attitude, and Joe Gibbs behind him, he'll win a lot more.

Dale Earnhardt - He's a car owner who will turn 50 on April 29, but the scowling scoundrel still gets other drivers hot and still burns for title No. 8. Watching him alternately work with or against Dale Jr. is a great subplot every week.

Jeff Gordon - Remember all that stuff about the 24 losing its way without Evernham? Gordon is still one of the best drivers around: major disappointments for him (ninth in points last year, sixth in '99) would be career-making seasons for others. Plus, the only guys who want to prove they can dominate without Evernham more than Gordon are crew chief Robbie Loomis and rest of the rainbow team.

Mark Martin - One of the series' steadiest until last year, his car will lead the series in snickers and double entendres with new sponsor Pfizer/Viagra giving Martin's No. 6 an unfamiliar look. Martin, whose eighth-place points finish last year was - amazingly - his first outside the top six since 1988, will concentrate solely on Cup racing after also driving a Busch car the last 14 seasons. Maybe a new sponsor is just the thing to get his career . . . errr . . . revitalized.

Who won't win the Cup

Bobby Labonte - Doesn't it feel like the 2000 Winston Cup season just ended? That's because it did. With a season that goes from Valentine's Day to Thanksgiving, you need a steady, patient driver, an always-competitive car, a great crew, a financially strong team and a lot of luck. It all came together for Labonte last year, just like it did for Dale Jarrett in '99. Jarrett (fourth last year) can tell you how hard repeating is.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The coolest driver anywhere had two wins and two other top 10s in last year's first 13 races, but didn't crack the top 10 the rest of the season and finished 16th in points. It'll be a while until he learns that in the Cup points game, solid wins out over spectacular. Still, it's impossible not to root for Little "E." The 26-year-old with the dyed hair is a rock star in a stock car. After a sixth-place finish in the Bud Shootout, he lamented not finishing higher but said "it's nothing a cold Budweiser won't fix." His car is No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, but you get the feeling he'd say that no matter what he was driving.

So what else is new?

Jarrett laps the field for the worst new paint scheme: He goes from Captain America (the red, white and blue Quality Care Ford) to Captain Sign-for-this-please (The UPS Ford's overnight package brown). Ugh. . . . Look out for Shawna Robinson, a 35-year-old mother of two, who will attempt to qualify in seven races after finishing sixth in the ARCA points race last year. . . . Fans were spoiled by last year's rookie class, which included weekly contenders Matt Kenseth (14th in points) and Earnhardt Jr. This year's group is more likely to end up like Scott Pruett, whom Tide washed their hands of after his debut and replaced with Ricky Craven. Trucks and Busch series vet Ron Hornaday could be the best among this year's new guys, which also include Jason Leffler, Andy Houston, truck points runner-up Kurt Busch and Atwood. . . . Aside from Evernham's troops, Ward Burton (10th in points last year, ninth in '99) is the best bet to have the most intrepid Intrepid. The others driving Dodges: Sterling Martin, John Andretti, Buckshot Jones, Kyle Petty, Dave Blaney, Stacy Compton and Leffler.

Around the tracks

The two new races are at brand new tracks at Chicago (July 15) and Kansas City (Sept. 30). . . . Lockport native Mike Hillman enters his first full year as crew chief for driver/owner Brett Bodine, and things are looking up for the No. 11 car. Sponsorship from Ralph's Supermarkets is secured through the end of the season, and the team struck a deal to lease engines from Roberts Yates Racing. . . . Winston Cup's annual stop at Watkins Glen International is the Global Crossing @ the Glen on Aug. 12; the Busch Series stops by on July 8. . . . A rehauled NASCAR.com is advertising streaming audio of drivers and crews during races.

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