With the announcement today that Richard Petty Motorsports drivers Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler are to share a Braun Racing ride in a limited Nationwide Series schedule this summer and fall, the question has to be asked:
Why are two of Dodge's biggest names going to be driving cars for a Toyota operation?
The answer may be far more significant than the announcement that Kahne and Sadler are going to run a few Nationwide races and may be an indicator of things to come for RPM's Cup operation.
At the start of the 2009 campaign, it seemed the consummate marriage for Dodge...the merger of Petty Enterprises, an operation that brought unparalleled success to the manufacturer, and Gillett Evernham Motorsports, the organization that led Dodge back into NASCAR in 2001.
And on the surface, 2009 has had some positive stories for the RPM teams. They managed to bring Elliott Sadler back into the fold after an ugly spat that saw him briefly lose his seat in the No. 19 Dodge.
Kasey Kahne is a legitimate contender for a spot in the Chase. And the team has done well to extend AJ Allmendinger's Sprint Cup schedule from eight to 26 Cup races, making a full-season campaign for the No. 44 team a real possibility.
Look closer. Things are not all well in the RPM camp and a manufacturer change is a very plausible scenario.
Despite having a bevy of sponsors on their cars during any given race weekend, a look at some of the team's tangible practices at the track suggest that cash is not plentiful for this four-car squad.
Only in the last month has RPM started running Dodge's new motor, a package that Penske Racing has used to great competitive advantage thus far in 2009.
And even though they've now started running the new motor, that only applies to one of the team's cars (Kasey Kahne's).
Need further proof?
Consider this example from last month's race at Richmond. With Elliott Sadler and AJ Allmendinger both running off the lead lap and battling for a shot at the lucky dog, both teams were told that RPM was out of tires and that they were not going to buy two sets for both teams' final runs.
Reporting that you've run out of tires may be commonplace in ARCA or even the Nationwide ranks, but to hear a factory-backed Cup operation unwilling or unable to buy enough tires for their race cars is eye-opening.
That's all, but a smoking gun that there are significant money troubles in the house of Petty...a fact that's been confirmed.
Last week in an interview with The Sporting News, co-owner Richard Petty acknowledged that Chrysler's recent bankruptcy has halted the flow of factory cash into RPM's coffers.
"We have money that was due April 30 that has not been received yet and probably won't be received for several weeks...they've stopped everything."
And while Petty in the same interview made clear that Dodge has assured his operation that they remain committed to NASCAR in the face of their current financial troubles, the news coming out of the RPM camp on Monday begs the question...is RPM able to stay committed to Dodge?
Take a look at the two stories coming from the Petty camp Monday. The Associated Press reported that RPM laid off nine employees while reducing salaries across their entire organization as a result of the Chrysler bankruptcy...and the factory cash that's no longer coming in.
And in a press release distributed late Monday afternoon, the two biggest name drivers in the RPM camp, with the team's Cup sponsors in tow, have been scheduled to contest five Nationwide Series races in Braun Racing entries.
Braun Racing fields Toyotas.
And note this quote from Elliott Sadler in the release:
"I'm looking forward to getting back in the Auto Value Bumper to Bumper Nationwide car."
Not the Auto Value Dodge. The Auto Value Nationwide car. In fact, Dodge is mentioned nowhere in the press release. That's a hugely significant detail that all but affirms that Kahne and Sadler will be driving Camrys instead of Chargers.
Money problems, confirmation that Dodge's bucks have indeed been halted, and now announcements that two of Dodge Motorsports' flagship drivers will be getting behind the wheel of another manufacturer's car...with Dodge Cup sponsors on the hood.
Dodge can affirm all they want their support of NASCAR. But the future is now for their Cup teams. They don't need assurances, they need money.
They need it now.
And in the case of Richard Petty Motorsports, an organization that may well have bit off more than they could chew fielding four full-time cars, that need for cash may well trump their own commitment to Dodge.