Chrysler and the Dodge Boys: A NASCAR Manufacturer in Disarray

L.J. BurgessSenior Writer IAugust 24, 2008

Much has been made in the business sections of this nation's top newspapers about the U.S. automotive industry and its struggles to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Chrysler's most recent involvement in NASCAR could be seen as a road map through this decade's automotive design and engineering minefield.

Analyst Kelly Crandall's latest article, revealing Brad Keselowski's refusal of an offer to drive Penske South's recent Daytona 500 winning seat, is a staggering indictment of Chrysler's ability to stay competitive in NASCAR's top series.

If one of the Nationwide Series' top young stars recognizes that he's better off waiting two years for a competitive seat rather than stepping into a race-ready ride like the No. 12 then something is seriously wrong in the Dodge camp.

There may be a lot of contributing factors to Keselowski's decision, such as contracts with Chevrolet, loyalty to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and the promise of a Hendrick Motor Sports seat. But it's obvious that he was granted the opportunity to make that choice by JR Motorsports.

Keselowski's decision confirms that Dodge has become the laughing stock of NASCAR.

After sitting out of NASCAR competition for a quarter of a century, Chrysler brought Dodge back into the Sprint Cup fold with a lot of fanfare in the 2000 offseason.

The Dodge division spared little, if anything, in luring Ray Evernham from Hendrick Motor Sports to set up the Dodge flagship team; buying Chip Ganassi's loyalties for his NASCAR maiden entry, convincing an up-and-coming Bill Davis Racing to switch brands, and, of course, bringing Petty Enterprises back into the fold. That cost a lot of Chrysler cash.

The 2001 season driver lineup had it all with past champion Bill Elliott, Daytona master Sterling Marlin, NASCAR ambassador Kyle Petty, John Andretti, Ward Burton, and a host of up-and-comers (Jason Leffler, Casey Atwood, Buckshot Jones, and Stacey Compton).

That generous investment paid off immediately with a first row sweep at that year's Daytona 500, another pole 16 races later, and the ultimate win in Detroit's backyard at Michigan International Speedway seven months into the season.

The rest of the season was a Dodge tour de force with top fives, top tens, and wins at Darlington, Charlotte, and Homestead. A third place finish in the points race for Marlin and Ganassi showed that the Dodge Boys were back with a vengeance.

Seven short years later those drivers are only fond memories and the Chrysler/Dodge teams they drove for are in shambles.

In between, there were flashes of brilliance: a Daytona 500 win, Ryan Newman's 2003 season, Kasey Kahne's emergence with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and Ganassi and Penske Chase runs stand as high points.

But the highlights have diminished and with only two drivers in the Chase since 2005 Dodge is in serious decline in the NASCAR garage. If Kahne drops out of contention for the '08 Chase it will be the first time since 2002 that Dodge has been out of the top 10 in points by Homestead.

One common thread among these Dodge teams is driver turnover. Some proven veterans have been fired by, or bailed on, Dodge teams for countless reasons including a soap opera of personality clashes and alleged marital infidelity.

The knee-jerk reaction was to import established open wheel stars from the fractured IRL and Champ Car series. The result has been a disaster, with only J.P. Montoya having a modicum of success.

The infrastructure of the teams has been in constant flux. Crew chiefs have been passed around like trading cards and some have moved on in frustration.

The owners who looked like geniuses a few short years ago now look completely incompetent and lost.

Sponsorships have been cobbled together and few remain constant from week to week. Now a NASCAR stalwart, Texaco/Havoline has spit the bit. If not for the big red Dodge Dealer cars, Chrysler wouldn't have any true identity left on the track.

This tragic downfall can only be laid at the feet of Chrysler's board of directors and the Daimler Benz money men that abandoned them as soon as times got tough. The Benz boys knew where the market was moving and it wasn't in Chrysler's direction.

The choice was "America or the World, Dodge Motorsports or McLaren Mercedes"...and the Benz money men bolted.

Mercedes faces its biggest sales challenge here in the States. Lexus, Infinity, Cadillac, and even Buick have all taken a huge piece of the quality based luxury car market away from the Europeans.

With quality, reliability, and high repair cost issues in its recent history, the European luxury car manufacturer's new technological gimmicks look like tinsel on a dying Christmas tree.

The top of the line German brands have been exposed for the poseurs they are and now depend on blind loyalty from the wannabe bourgeoisie to make sales targets.

So the choice was simple: back to the continent and Formula 1.

Chrysler Corp. has a history of government and union bailouts due to poor market strategy and shortsightedness. Another low interest "charity ball" wouldn't surprise me.

With a history of shaky quality, bad model choices, and singular design, Chrysler has to depend on the fringe market of Jeep, PT Cruiser, and nine MPG pickup truck lovers to cover the wishy-washy sales of the brick-like Charger and the rest of its horrendous-looking, low MPG, model line.

The Dodge Charger is the perfect example of Chrysler's lack of touch with its market and its NASCAR fan base.

The Dodge Intrepid was the perfect racecar—smooth, sleek, aerodynamic, and a winner on the track. Was it boring? Yes, but so was the incredibly successful Ford Taurus, which made Ford bring that design back from the dead because it was so popular among its loyal fans.

The racing budget is drying up, the engineering re-prioritized, and the future of the newest Dodge V8 "Hemi" is in question, as is everything coming out of the Chrysler design studios.

If Dodge is a major player in NASCAR's 2010 season, I'll be shocked.

I can't see Chrysler surviving another season with its teams in such disarray, its sponsors bailing, and its fans wondering who they can count on for a top five, much less wins. The future was four years ago and somehow Chrysler missed the memo.

"Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" used to be the mantra of the American automotive industry.

But not for the Dodge Boys. Not anymore.