The Dodge era in NASCAR racing is over — again — but perhaps not for good.
The car maker announced Tuesday that it was withdrawing from NASCAR competition at the conclusion of the 2012 season, ending a 12-year run that to date has produced 55 victories with 11 different drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.
Dodge won’t support any programs in NASCAR next year, but Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of the SRT (Street and Racing Technology) brand, didn’t rule out a presence for the Dodge after 2013.
Rumblings that Dodge was planning its exit strategy began making their way through the Cup garage even before the series arrived at Pocono for Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400. The conspicuous absence of a Dodge entry from the roster for this week’s Goodyear tire test in the new 2013 cars at Martinsville fueled the speculation.
Penske Racing’s defection from Dodge to Ford, starting next season, also was a significant factor. That announced move, which preceded the unveiling of the 2013 Dodge Charger at Las Vegas, took the manufacturer by surprise.
“I’m still kind of licking my wounds and trying to figure out the world right now,” Gilles told the NASCAR Wire Service at the time.
Though Penske continued to develop the 2013 Charger, Dodge’s participation beyond 2012 was anything but guaranteed. All of the top-tier teams in Cup racing are aligned with other manufacturers, and the teams that have been in discussion with Dodge this year — notably Furniture Row and Richard Petty Motorsports — don’t currently have proven marquee drivers to offer.
“We had a very elegant situation with the Penske group, having a one-stop shop, and engine, a shop — everything — a very high-quality team to work with,” Gilles told reporters on a teleconference Tuesday afternoon. “When that changed, the equation changed dramatically . . .
“It’s not as easy as you would think to configure a team at the level we’re accustomed to racing and at the level we want to perform. Not undermining the people that came to talk to us, but at the end of the day, it’s a big machine to put together and to do it right.”
Gilles emphasized that the decision to leave NASCAR was not a matter of reallocating the NASCAR budget elsewhere.
“It’s really more a matter of going racing at the level and quality we were accustomed to, not necessarily budget management,” he said.
This is not Chrysler’s first adieu to NASCAR racing. Despite a phenomenally successful run with Richard Petty — not to mention manufacturers’ championships in 1970 and 1975 — Dodge withdrew factory support from the Cup series in 1977 and didn’t return until 2001, when owners Ray Evernham and Chip Ganassi put Dodges back on the track.
“Dodge has been a great partner to NASCAR for many years, and they have been part of numerous memorable moments throughout our history,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said in a statement. “They made a business decision not to return in 2013, as they did in 1977 before returning in 2001. We wish them well and hope they again will choose to return to NASCAR at a later date.”
Likewise, Dodge’s decision this year comes in the aftermath of recent success. Dodge drivers have won 44 races in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series since 2002, and Penske driver Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide championship in 2010.
Keselowski currently is tied for the Cup series lead in victories with three and is an all-but-certain qualifier for the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season. It’s not inconceivable that Keselowski could win a Cup title for Penske in Dodge’s last year in the series.
“It would be almost a fairy-tale story to leave on the highest note possible — for now,” Gilles said.