For fans of cars and going fast, there are a few names that come to mind no matter what your allegiance. Corvette has been around for some 60 years and, for most of those years, has been the symbol of speed and horsepower for General Motors. Ford has had the GT40 and Mustang GTs, as well as the Shelby aftermarket cars, since the 60s. While they are fast cars, though, they’re also sports cars, and NASCAR isn’t about sports cars. Looking back at the history of this sport, one of the most important innovations was the introduction of the hemispherical engine (so named for its hemispherical cylinder head), more commonly known simply as the Hemi. The maker of the Hemi was Chrysler Corporation, the parent company of Dodge, and the company that still markets a different version of that engine today. They’re also the company that has decided, just 12 years after their celebrated return to the sport, to pull out of NASCAR once again.
Chrysler has long been the red headed step-child of the auto world. In fact, they have almost always been chasing GM and Ford, including their storied government bailout in the early 1980s with Lee Iaccoca at the helm. While Chrysler was dominant with its Plymouth and Dodge brands on large speedways in the 1960s and early ’70s, they still weren’t dominating the championships. By 1977, the company was hurting so badly financially that they bailed on the sport to try and save some money. Chrysler products stayed out of the sport until 2001 when they made their storied comeback with Ray Evernham and their Dodge brand. The return was certainly successful, with Dodge notching 55 wins in 453 races. However, they were still a distant third to the big two American manufacturers, Chevrolet and Ford and, with Toyota returning in 2008, Dodge has been engaged in an uphill battle, with only one marquee team running their nameplate in the last three seasons.
Dodge returned to the sport in 2001 and found success with multiple teams. Sterling Marlin scored the first Dodge win at Michigan for Chip Ganassi Racing. Ward Burton took the checkered flag first at Darlington for Bill Davis. Bill Elliott notched a win at Homestead for the flagship team of Evernham Motorsports. The future looked bright for the brand and the sport, which was part of the reason Dodge returned in the first place. Starting out 2002, Dodge took the win in the Daytona 500 with Burton again and, were it not for a neck injury to Sterling Marlin, probably would have taken the championship that season as well. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, the economy started tanking, and the end result is that Dodge has once again found itself at a crossroads and again has decided that it is time to leave NASCAR behind.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. The failed effort to parade Richard Petty out as the flagship of the motorsports effort was a failure. Since 2009, Penske has been the only team – at least with factory backing – that was sporting the Dodge logo on the front of the car. While the effort from Penske has been heroic, getting cars in the Chase in each of the last two years and probably having a car in again this year, the team has thrown in the towel and signed on to run Fords in 2013. There was discussion about Dodge trying to sign as many as three different teams for next season but, in the end, there just wasn’t a benefit for the automaker to justify the expenditure that would have been necessary.
After Penske made the announcement this spring that they were switching to Ford, the search was on for Dodge to try and lure away a high profile organization to run their cars. Unfortunately for Dodge, there wasn’t an organization with enough muscle to put the nameplate up front, where Penske had at least been able to keep them as the fleet of Dodge cars had shrunk.
There are a handful of teams in the sport that win the majority of the races every season. Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing are staunch Chevrolet teams and are not going to leave the Bowtie behind unless GM pulls out of racing. Roush Fenway has run Fords forever and is in the same situation as Hendrick, Stewart and Childress. They aren’t leaving Ford unless the blue oval leaves the sport. Joe Gibbs Racing is the flagship organization for Toyota and would not move any higher in a pecking order by switching to Dodge. That leaves Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Wood Brothers Racing and Furniture Row Racing as the five teams who have won a race in the last two seasons. Waltrip was at the point when Toyota came into the sport so the odds of them switching were slim. The Wood Brothers have been in bed with Ford for a very long time which also puts them in bed with Roush Fenway. The only real options were Earnhardt-Ganassi, Petty and Furniture Row. It sounds as though Furniture Row laid out a plan for Dodge to make the move to their nameplate. The possibility also existed for Front Row Motorsports and Phoenix Racing to swap over to the Chrysler brand. However, in the end, it just didn’t make sense for Dodge to pour millions of dollars into NASCAR racing to back a group of cars who had won one race collectively in the last two years.
In 2001, it was fashionable to run in NASCAR if you were an automaker. The sport was going gangbusters and the return on investment was easy to calculate. By 2012 the landscape has changed dramatically and the benefit of being in NASCAR to a manufacturer is debatable. One thing is crucial to make that investment at least somewhat beneficial, and that is winning. Penske Racing was able to win in spite of having no other teams in the garage to share information with and contended for championships despite being on a racing island. There simply weren’t any other teams like that for Dodge to hitch their wagon to once their only team decided to switch manufacturers.
It is a shame that Dodge is leaving the sport but, similar to the people who long for the good ol’ days even though they weren’t that good, the good ol’ days of Dodge weren’t all that either. In the history of NASCAR the Dodge brand won a total of two Manufacturer’s Championships, the same number as Plymouth, Pontiac, Buick, and Chrysler. They actually won fewer Manufacturer’s Championships than Hudson and Oldsmobile. They’ve abandoned the Truck Series, allowing the few Dodge teams in the sport to run on their own dime. They’ve been holding on for several years and the pulling of the rug out from under them by Penske was the last straw that spelled the end.
Dodge’s latest run in NASCAR was a feel good story for a while. There were some stirring chapters that included a Daytona 500 and a Brickyard 400 win. There was the first win after the return by Sterling Marlin and his near championship run. The return of Richard Petty’s name to the Dodge family was a moment that brought the history of the sport to the forefront and allowed casual fans the chance to see what the history of the sport was all about. But for now the final chapter is going to be written by Brad Keselowski in the Chase and Sam Hornish, Jr., and anyone else who ends up piloting the No. 22 this season. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 24 years for Chrysler to come back the next time.