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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Coming Out on Dodge’s Deeply Depressing Demise in NASCAR

This has been on my mind for a while this year, and has become an even bigger issue the last couple of weeks. This might be the best time to come clean with all of you. I know this might come as a bit of a shock, but alas, I can no longer hide from my feelings:

I am a Mopar Guy.

You know, I guess in some ways, I always knew. After all, being born into a family that supported such tendencies left little hope for me to turn out normal. My father, uncles, and family friends all had some sort of Pentastar powered vehicle at some point – a 1964 Plymouth Fury, 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, 1971 Dodge Charger SE, 1969 Plymouth Valiant, a fleet of Power Wagons from 1967-77 and any number of random Rams, Corinthian-clad Cordobas, distinguished Diplomats and Jeeps galore.

When I was a baby and in the midst of a colic attack, my parents would take me for a ride in the Challenger, and I would start giggling and smiling and calm right down. My first car was a 1972 Plymouth ‘Cuda 340, restored and retrofitted with a 440 Super Commando and the vaunted A-833 4-speed manual transmission. PH8A, RJ-12YC, 727-A; these might sound like numbers from some bizarre bingo game, but to Plymouth People and Chrysler Creatures, these are part numbers to paradise. They say the most recognizable sound is that of your child crying – I don’t know as I have yet to make my contribution to future civilizations, however the most recognizable sound to me is a Chrysler gear reduction drive starter turning over.

So you can only imagine my chagrin at what is happening with what once was the proudest performance production car company on the planet, what with the sad state of affairs of the Dodge teams as of late in NASCAR.

With all of the hoopla surrounding the Chase for the Championship, the announcement was made that Richard Petty Motorsports was moving away from Dodge and would be joining the Ford camp for 2010. This alone may have been too much for many of the Mopar faithful to take – after all, it was Petty Enterprises that spearheaded the return of Dodge and Chrysler back into NASCAR in 2000, following a near 20-year absence from competition. Sure we’ve seen this play out before – Petty left Plymouth in 1969 after Chrysler brass refused to let him drive a winged Dodge Daytona on the super speedways, insisting instead that he run the brick-like Belvedere instead. When the Charger nameplate was reintroduced in 2004, the sight of Petty’s 1973 Charger along side the new 4-door impression of Dodge’s iconic B-body stirred more than a few souls who were originally baptized with Hamtramck holy water.

Things turned potentially ugly this weekend at New Hampshire, when Kasey Kahne’s R6 engine gave birth to a crankshaft on lap 66. This sparked rumors of sabotage, in regards to the timing of last week’s announcement of RPM joining FoMoCo. Those notions were quelled – somewhat – when Bill Pink of RPM acknowledged that the current crankshaft being used in these engines was a known weak link, and that it was only a matter of time before one came apart in competition. Since the problem has reared its ugly head already in race 1 of the Chase, the team will revert back to the proven R5 engine this weekend at Dover.

That incident aside, the fact that Richard Petty Motorsports is abandoning ship does not bode well for Dodge, as that leaves them with only one team fielding their cars – Penske Racing.

Which leads me to the latest dumbfounding Dodge-related development. Pat Tryson, crew chief for Kurt Busch – and possibly the most genuine, even-tempered man you will ever meet in the garage area – has been barred from the Penske Racing shops since it was announced he would be moving to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2010. To have the team leader and crew chief of your sole Chase-contending car – and the chief architect of whatever wins and success that Penske has enjoyed since Tryson bailed on Roush Fenway Racing in early 2007 – barred from car preparation and operational management of the flagship No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in the middle of a title fight, is beyond puzzling. Even more so is the assertion that Tryson can only participate in team meetings and discussions if the other Penske crew chiefs sign off on it and allow him to be there.

Oh yeah? So what’s next, the United States Air Force requesting permission from Iran or North Korea before launching surveillance flights? Oh wait – bad example.

The last time I checked, the only championship points being registered right now for Penske Racing are those generated by the car signed off on by Pat Tryson. A crew chief with three previous Chase runs under his belt with Mark Martin, Tryson is the type of crew chief who can help put together a 10-race streak of seventh-place average finishes (including a win or two) that would put them in a position to win the first Sprint Cup in Penske Racing’s history. Instead, they have opted to shut out one of the key cogs in their machine, instead deferring to the teams whose biggest challenge is often going head to head with TRG Motorsports and Furniture Row Racing.

Finally, next year will mark the debut of the new Car of Tomorrow in the Nationwide Series, as well as Dodge’s entry in the new pony car ranks – the Challenger. I had been awaiting this moment for the last year and a half, when the first photos were released of testing being done at Richmond, and the Challenger was shown in all it’s gray primer glory. It actually LOOKED like a real car! Imagine that, in NASCAR, the product on the track bore more than a passing resemblance to that which would make its way into the showroom. Looking ahead to next season…what is there really to get geeked about?

Much like in Cup, the number of Dodge teams is dwindling by the day. At the last race in Richmond, there were a total of five Dodges entered, two of which were fielded by a guy named Dusty Whitney and another by Derrike Cope. That would be cool, except it isn’t 1990 anymore, and those cars are about as relevant as Avacor. That being said, there will be a total of two competitive Dodges next year once Brad Keselowski joins Justin Allgaier in Penske Challengers. How they will fare is anybody’s guess, but with waning factory support that was the result of selling their soul to the devil (and Italy), there will be precious few teams remaining with whom to share data, as the Dodge losing streak in Nationwide looks to eclipse that of even the Detroit Lions, dating back to August of 2007 at Bristol.

While Dodge maintains that they are actively recruiting teams for 2010 and beyond and wish to remain a force in NASCAR, these recent developments tend to contradict that assertion. Teams continue to dwindle and budgets tighten further, the days of Dodge in NASCAR may once again be numbered, just as they were 30 years ago.

For my fellow Mopar faithful, take heart. While we may no longer reign supreme on an oval track, we still dominate on the auction block at Barrett–Jackson.