Dodge was devastated when Penske Racing switched to Ford in early March for the 2013 Sprint Cup season, leaving it without a full-time team, engine builder or chassis manufacturing facility. With the Daytona 500 less than a year away, it was a considerable blow that left the manufacturer little time to rebuild.
Cup is returning to cars with brand identity next season and Dodge had put considerable effort and money into developing the Dodge Charger. It went public at the Cup race at Las Vegas two weeks after losing Penske and the launch was widely seen as a commitment by Dodge to go forward into next season.
But Dodge has never openly expressed that it will return and, based on several industry sources, the manufacturer could be leaving Cup at the conclusion of this season.
Let's start with Dodge's most recent statement from Beth Paretta, Director of Marketing and Operations, SRT Brand and Motorsports:
"In February, we identified a process for the evaluation of the 2013 NASCAR program. We are continuing to follow that process and are within our established timeline. We are pleased with the number of inquiries that have been received about the Dodge motorsports program and continue the evaluation process. As decisions are made, we will announce them at that time."
SI.com's request to interview a Dodge executive with decision-making authority was not granted. What stands out about the statement, all we have, is Dodge leaves open the option of leaving. If you've decided to stay in Cup, why not just say it?
Dodge has spoken to Richard Petty Motorsports and there are rumors that Dodge is working on an agreement with Michael Andretti's IndyCar operation. Neither has an engine or chassis manufacturing capability and Andretti doesn't have any NASCAR experience. Massive investment, estimated by one industry source at a minimum of $500 million, would be required to bring the program to a competitive level with Petty or Andretti. Is Dodge willing to spend a half billion dollars to stay in Cup? Doubtful.
Robby Gordon owns the only other Dodge team in Cup and he's running a part-time schedule. Of the Cup teams available, Gordon would be the least expensive and the team most capable of building the new Dodge Charger. Gordon has a long history of manufacturing chassis, dating back to his off-road career in the 1980s, and has built competitive, sophisticated Hummers for the Dakar Rally in addition to his Cup cars.
Gordon has been said to be on Dodge's list of possibilities, but it hasn't spoken with him. Here's what he said Sunday night on SPEED's Wind Tunnel:
"That's a rumor to me as well, but it surprises me we're not [speaking]," Gordon said. "If you look at the teams out there that can actually build the cars, test them, design them and make stuff happen, we're a race team that can do that. If you look at the teams out there they're talking to, Petty, that's pretty much a Roush program.
"Then, you have the rumors on Michael [Andretti], even in IndyCar, they don't build parts. We have the team, facility, cars, transporter and fabrication shop like a Hendrick or a Roush. There's not many teams that have what we have."
Why not at least talk to Gordon? With proper funding, he can be ready for testing the Charger in early 2013 with a two- or three-car team. Dodge could work on expanding its team lineup in future years as contracts that teams have with manufacturers come to an end.
Dodge would still have to find a partner to build engines. It won't be cheap, but it would allow Dodge to establish a relationship that would not depend upon one team.
This certainly isn't the first time that Dodge has experienced its share of ups and downs. When Dodge decided to re-enter Sprint Cup after a hiatus of 23 years, it hired Ray Evernham -- crew chief for Jeff Gordon's 1995, '97 and '98 championships at Hendrick Motorsports -- in late 1999 to build the team. Evernham Motorsports made its debut in 2001 at the Daytona 500 and Bill Elliott won at Homestead-Miami in the team's 34th race.
Jeremy Mayfield made the Chase in 2004 and 2005 and Kasey Kahne won six races and made the Chase in 2006.
Evernham's decision to sell a majority stake to George Gillett in 2007 began a decline for the team. Kahne made the Chase and won two races in 2009, but the team merged with Petty in 2010 and switched to Ford.
Dodge had added Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske in the last decade, but Ganassi switched to Chevrolet with its merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2009.
Penske's massive resources kept Dodge competitive in 2010 and 2011. Kurt Busch made the Chase in both seasons and won four races. Brad Keselowski won three races and finished fifth in the Chase last year.
Dodge is also under different ownership than it was in 2001 and it could be a factor in the decision to stay in Cup. Italian automaker Fiat acquired Chrysler, Dodge's parent company, out of bankruptcy, in 2009. With new leadership, it's possible priorities could change and a huge reinvestment in a Cup program may not fit in the budget.
Will Dodge stay in Cup beyond this season? The prohibitive cost and short time frame to get ready for 2013 says it won't.