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Dodge pulls out of NASCAR ... for now

Nick Laham / Getty Images

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Snap-On Tools Dodge, celebrates with the American flag after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Indiana 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 28.

In what a top executive described as “Clearly an extremely difficult decision,” Dodge is pulling out of NASCAR.

The decision to abandon what is the most widely followed motorsports program in the U.S. was the belated result of the decision by Team Penske to abandon Dodge and sign on with its arch-rival Ford Motor Co.  That unexpected setback, last March, left the smaller brand frantically searching for a new team and sponsors just as was ready to begin testing an all-new car for the 2013 NASCAR season.

After months of effort, no effective solution came together, a senior Chrysler executive lamented during a Tuesday conference call with reporters, leaving the Dodge brand no option but to pull out.

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“Cash,” insisted Ralph Gilles, the head of Chrysler corporate motor sports operations, “was not the issue.”  Instead, he repeatedly stressed, the effort to replace the Penske team had to be seen as “a multi-piece puzzle.  We couldn’t, unfortunately, put together a structure that made competitive sense for next year.”

 The loss of Penske, which was lured away by the offer of a lucrative, multi-year contract with Ford, left Gilles and his motorsports operations “working literally night and day,” meeting with a variety of possible new teams and sponsors to salvage the 2013 NASCAR effort.  But nothing appeared to provide all the solutions necessary.

A clearly disappointed Gilles left open the possibility that Dodge might yet work with one of the smaller NASCAR teams currently using its vehicles in the stock car series.  If that were to happen, however, there would only be minimal “in-kind” support, not a full-on sponsorship deal.

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Nonetheless, it appeared clear from the executive’s comments that the automaker is still hoping to stage a comeback at some point.  While few still believe the old adage “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” remains valid, there is still a general consensus that the sport’s incredibly loyal fans generate traffic, especially for a successful team.

As a result, “We don’t know” how much of an impact the NASCAR news will impact Dodge at the showroom, acknowledged Gilles, “but we know there’ll be a few fans out there who’ll revolt.”

Ironically, prior to Penske’s decision to bolt for Ford, Dodge had roughly tripled its support budget for NASCAR marketing efforts.

It’s actually not the first time Chrysler corporation has been left without a flag to fly in the NASCAR series. It pulled out of the stock car circuit in 1977 and didn’t formally return until 2001.

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In recent years, Dodge had steadily pulled back on the breadth of its team support, in part due to the increasing financial troubles that led parent Chrysler into bankruptcy in 2009.  But there has also been a general consolidation among the teams on the NASCAR circuit, Gilles stressed.

The first sign of trouble – after the defection of Penske, that is – came when Dodge announced it would miss a critical day of track testing.  But the final decision to pull out was made only last Friday, Gilles revealed.

While the executive – who also serves as Chrysler’s head of design – left open a return to NASCAR in the future, he stressed that Dodge would have to “go to whiteboard” and start strategizing its stock car plans all over again.

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