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Dodge struggling with lack of support, loss of teams


It has been 55 years since Lee Petty drove a Dodge Diplomat to victory in NASCAR’s premier series at a race in West Palm Beach, Fla.

That was the first victory at what now is the Sprint Cup Series level for the manufacturer, and it fittingly came with a Petty behind the wheel. With Petty Enterprises in the news this week, and apparently very close to ceasing to exist as NASCAR has known it, there is no diplomatic way to say it: Dodge has become an also-ran when it comes to stacking up against the other three manufacturers who compete at the Cup level.

The problems that have led to the apparent pending demise of Petty Enterprises are tied closely to the fortunes of Dodge. So if everyone is scratching their heads these days and wondering how this could happen to one of NASCAR’s most storied race organizations, perhaps another question begs to be asked:

What has happened to Dodge?

Dodge-backed cars have won a total of seven Cup races in the past two seasons -- two fewer than the series-high nine registered in 2008 alone by the No. 99 Ford driven by Carl Edwards of Roush Fenway Racing.

Richard Petty won four championships driving a Dodge in the 1970s, before the manufacturer discontinued widespread involvement in the sport in 1977. Dodge didn’t return to the NASCAR scene until 2001, when Ray Evernham started his own race team. Success, however, has been spotty since then -- and certainly hasn’t come close to matching the on-track success enjoyed by Toyota, the latest manufacturer to get involved in NASCAR.

Petty, owner of Petty Enterprises (along with the investment group Boston Ventures) and a record 200 race victories at the Cup level, explained at the end of last season why he thought the Dodge-backed teams were struggling to keep up with the Chevrolets fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, the Fords run by Roush, and the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think you look at who has been successful [in recent years], and Roush has seven or eight cars he’s working with; Hendrick has six or seven that he’s been working with; even Gibbs has had some other deals they’ve been working with,” Petty said of the alliances Roush Fenway has with Yates Racing, Hendrick has had with what soon will operate as Stewart-Haas Racing, and Gibbs has enjoyed with other Toyota-backed teams.

“It’s hard to compete with that. You look at the Dodge teams, and you’ve got four teams that have been totally independent. We’ve not thrown our stuff into the middle of the pot, like the other teams have done, and tried to work through things together. Hopefully, we can do that next year.”

Petty said this prior to the final race of the 2008 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Again, with the benefit now of hindsight, his words proved prophetic as he mulled over the pending merger of one Dodge team -- Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates hooking up with the Chevrolet-backed Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- and hinted at what might be in the offing for his own operation.

“We’re losing one Dodge team for sure [in Ganassi], and I don’t know about a couple of the rest of us. I just don’t know,” Petty said then. “But, hopefully, we can all get together over in a corner somewhere and get our act together. We need to say, ’Hey, instead of all of us Dodge guys working independently, maybe we can get together as a group and make this work.’ That would make for Dodge teams that are a lot stronger.”

Now it is obvious that there will be even fewer Dodge teams operating in 2009, as Petty’s No. 43 Dodge likely will be folded into Gillett-Evernham Motorsports. One NASCAR source said Petty Enterprises had laid off “all but about eight employees, and those are the ones dedicated solely to working on the No. 43.”

The No. 45 Dodge driven mostly in 2008 by Kyle Petty, Richard’s son, looks as if it will cease to operate. Ganassi began last season by fielding three full-time Cup teams, but the No. 40 piloted by Dario Franchitti didn’t make it through half the season and the two remaining teams, the No. 42 driven by Juan Montoya and the No. 41, likely will be run as Chevys in 2009 following the merger with DEI.

None of that seems appetizing to Kurt Busch, who drives the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing.

“I’ve always thought more is better. If you’ve got more Dodge cars on the track, you’ve got more opportunities to win,” Busch said. “But you want quality within those teams. We hope there may be an opportunity for some other team to come over to Dodge. That at least gives you the positive feeling that you’re moving in the right direction.”

Busch was one of three Dodge drivers to win races in 2008. Kasey Kahne, who drives the No. 9 car for GEM, was the only multiple winner with two victories (plus one in the non-points but high-paying All-Star race). Busch won once, as did his then-Penske teammate Ryan Newman, who captured the season-opening Daytona 500 in his No. 12 Dodge.

But Newman since has departed to drive a Chevy for the newly formed Stewart-Haas operation, leaving Busch to wonder where all the Dodge boys really stand heading into next season.

“I don’t feel like we’ve fallen behind. I think it gets back to the quantity. You just don’t have as many opportunities to win every week,” Busch insisted. "You can always look back at the manufacturers and see that things go in cycles. And the other thing is that teams go in cycles, as well.

“Right now, Hendrick Motorsports is hot. Roush Fenway Racing is on fire. But next year or the year after, it could be us. Things happen in cycles. You have to take the good with the bad and draw a straight line through it.”

Bobby Labonte is parting ways with Petty Enterprises after driving the No. 43 Dodge for three seasons, and likely will end up in a Chevrolet next season. But he said that the success of individual race teams has more to do with exactly that -- the individual race teams -- than whatever manufacturer it is aligned with. Yet, he was quick to add that manufacturer support helps.

“You look at Joe Gibbs Racing. They went from Pontiac to Chevrolet to Toyota -- and they’ve been successful running all of them,” Labonte said. “So a lot of it is the teams and how they’re gelling, and how they’re growing with the sport. Hendrick and Roush obviously were the heavyweights in the Chase [in 2008]. The manufacturers help out tremendously, and you want that support. You want them to work with you to help you get better.”


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