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Dodge's Precarious NASCAR Predicament


As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.

Two wins by Keselowski, coupled with teammate AJ Allmendinger — who’s been in position to win in the closing laps at both Martinsville and Talladega (before causing a massive wreck driving in a straight line) —indicate that Penske Racing will become (or already is) a force to be reckoned with throughout the balance of the year.

It also gives pause as to why in the hell it is jumping ship to ditch Dodge and join forces with the Ford Motor Company.

The Mopar mutiny was presented as a way for Penske to better benchmark itself against the competition, and felt that the Blue Oval brigade was that measuring stick. Considering how a Chevrolet has taken home the Cup crown every year since 2005, I’m not quite sure how that math works out just yet. It took nearly two years for the Ford camp to figure out that its simulation software sucked, and it was the Roush Fenway satellite team of Richard Petty Motorsports that helped rescue it from the depths of despair and fundamentally flawed front-end geometry.

Last season was a rebound year for Ford, which retained the services of marquee driver Carl Edwards, who ultimately tied Tony Stewart for the championship — but lost in a tie-breaker to Stewart’s four wins to Edwards’ lone triumph at Las Vegas (a race, ironically, that Stewart’s team threw away on botched fuel strategy). For 2012, the two longest-tenured Ford drivers — Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle — have been a force to be reckoned with, while Edwards has had his share of struggles, including being caught up in a wreck at Talladega and the controversial restart penalty at Richmond which denied him his first win in well over a year.

Dodge, on the other hand, has been a microcosm of Chrysler’s struggles, and its most recent brush with mortality. With Clint Eastwood cutting Chrysler commercials at halftime of the Super Bowl and a number of tug-at-your-heart-string ads that have recently been rolled out, it appeared Penske and Dodge were positioning themselves to pick up where things left off in 2011.

Unfortunately, Kurt Busch completely lost his faculties twice in nine weeks during the 2011 Chase — including going postal on a respected reporter while in earshot of a smartphone. The result was Busch being booted from Penske’s No. 22, and AJ Allmendinger replacing him as a last-minute pickup from the driver waiver wire. The 2012 season started with a disappointing Daytona 500, with late-race wrecks and an incident on pit road sidelining the two-car operation. Speedweeks, in general, was a bit of a bust aside from Keselowski’s tweet heard ’round the world.

More distraction and impending doom, however, was looming, as Dodge was prepared the unveil what appears to be the baddest-assed looking racecar to roll out since Richard Petty’s Roadrunner and David Pearson’s Gran Torino did battle 40 years ago. The new generation CoT for 2013 has a number of refinements, chief among them something resembling cars the manufacturers actually manufacture. Image that: a stock car that legitimately looks like a stock car — something that has been missing from the sport since the late ’80s.

Undercutting Dodge’s presentation of its new piece in early March while in Las Vegas was word that its flagship (and sole) team was pulling up the tent stakes and taking its lugwrench to Dearborn. Not good news for a manufacturer that put all of its chips on Penske and doubled-down on a driver, in Keselowski, that is on the verge of stardom and who grew up just outside of Detroit, to boot.

Keselowski has matured greatly since joining Penske Racing in Novemeber 2009, becoming a leader following the vacuum left by the departed Busch. Keselowski’s family was instrumental in the resurgence of Chrysler’s involvement in stock-car racing, with his father Bob piloting a LeBaron in the early 1990s in the ARCA Series, and then a Ram once Dodge returned to NASCAR in the Truck Series in ’95. With Keselowski in the fold and seemingly flipping a switch after a testing crash at Road Atlanta last summer, Dodge finally had an up-and-coming young talent with one of the finest organizations in motorsports.

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A few weeks into the 2012 season find that picture suddenly a lot less rosy.

Meanwhile, half a continent away…
Word came out recently that Furniture Row Racing has reached out to former Penske driver Busch to gauge his interest in driving a possible second car for the Denver, Colo., based team with Richard Childress Racing connections. Perhaps more interesting is that Dodge has issued overtures to the same team to suspend its Chevrolet affiliation and become a full-factory backed Dodge operation. The main obstacle — and one that will likely become a theme with Dodge — appears to be just who will build the engines for the team that is based 2,000 miles away from the hub of NASCAR (and from anybody who could possibly build engines for a manufacturer that still relies on a racing family from its storied past, in Arrington Engines, for much of its support). Penske Racing has also said it would still be interested in the business of building Dodge engines, despite the move to Ford. Isn’t that a bit like a Democratic strategist saying they will be assisting with the Mitt Romney campaign?

For Busch, it’s likely a welcome reprieve, as his current gig has him driving semi-sponsored cars manned by a team of 18 warm bodies and pictures of mountain cats on the hood from six-year old movies. Not to bag on Phoenix Racing — it’s astounding the level the rag-tag band is able to compete considering its resources — and also a testament to the true talent of Kurt Busch. Yeah, he might fly off the handle and vent for 500 miles, but as with his equally-mercurial brother, you will find no one who argues his ability to drive a racecar. And let’s be honest: it wasn’t until he completely lost it at Richmond last spring that things started to turn around for the Penske organization and, low and behold, they got both cars and two-thirds of the Dodge contingent in the Chase.

To his credit, Busch has kept his trademark temper under control thus far in 2012, and even managed to keep the big green rage monster caged after inadvertent contact from his former teammate and eventual race-winner Keselowski at Talladega. While Busch has had discussions with Furniture Row, there is also speculation that he may be headed to RCR. That would be an interesting combination, as team owner Childress beat up his brother in the garage area just a few months ago.

While being engaged by a six-time championship winning car owner is obviously heartening for Busch, it may prove downright depressing for Dodge. It may be in position to reclaim a championship-caliber driver and bring a mid-level team (which just happens to be the defending champions of this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington) to the next level. However, nothing is concrete and the clock is already ticking on 2013.

If the Busch connection at FRR doesn’t pan out, who else might Dodge be able to court?

What’s old is new again?
You can eliminate the heavy-hitters like RCR, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing right off the bat. Joe Gibbs Racing has re-signed with Toyota, having suspended its own engine-building operation to source powerplants directly through TRD. The Michael Waltrip Racing renaissance is well underway, and there is next to no chance it wants to upset the applecart at this stage. It was rumored that Richard Petty Motorsports may well be a prime candidate to become the factory-backed Dodge team, but it may prove difficult as it is essentially an assembly company, getting chassis, engines and engineering support from RFR.

However, a potential Petty move would be a dream come true for many Mopar fans simply for the nostalgic value. And it would be mutually beneficial for Petty and Dodge.

RPM is not performing at nearly the level its car and engine provider (RFR) is this season, and sponsorship remains an issue for the operation that has whittled things down to the No. 43 driven by Aric Almirola and the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose. Former JGR crew chief Mike Ford has recently come on board, bringing knowledge and the perspective of a championship-caliber team.

The engine supplier issue, though, still looms large for RPM if it were to make the switch back to Pentastar power. Should Ralph Gilles and company elect to put a Dodge in their garage, the only two with experience building them (besides Penske) are Joey Arrington and “Chief” Maurice Petty. Dedicated engineering support and being the sole-focus that accompanies the only-child-status of Dodge’s NASCAR endeavors could help revitalize RPM, which is still suffering a bit of an identity crisis since Petty Enterprises stopped being a racing organization and started being a museum in Level Cross.

If Dodge is unable to find a team with enough potential and existing infrastructure, its involvement in NASCAR may very well end up being limited to a space in that same museum.

by Vito Pugliese
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