Dodge NASCAR program finds itself on the ropes
As darkness fell on the Great American Race this February, no one at Dodge was planning to turn out the lights anytime soon. Ryan Newman had just snagged his first Daytona 500 win for Roger Penske, one of six Dodges to finish in the top eight spots. With the perfect 1-2 punch of Newman and Kurt Busch, the manufacturer had made a statement the Charger was a force to be reckoned with in 2008.
Or so it seemed.
Turning the calendar page from February to April, it's a whole different story for a 12-car program in turmoil. It's clear that not all makes are created equal in NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow world -- and no one knows this cold reality better than Dodge. At Daytona, Chargers combined to lead 23 of 200 laps; in the seven races since, they've led just 48 of 3,000. During that span, the cars have collected just one top five finish and, even then, Newman's fourth-place run at Texas was clouded amidst the scrutiny of a post-race inspection failure. With just two Chargers currently in Chase contention -- Kasey Kahne and Newman are hanging on in 11th and 12th, respectively -- a promising season has quickly unraveled as the manufacturer finds itself a distant fourth in the standings behind Chevy, Ford, and Toyota.
Where has it all gone wrong? Here are four theories why the Charger has charged straight to the back of the pack this season:
Lack of leadership
When it comes to the other three manufacturers, it takes all of two seconds to name their number one team. Ford's Roush Fenway Racing, Toyota's Joe Gibbs Racing, and Chevrolet's Hendrick Motorsports have combined to win all eight points titles this decade in the Cup Series, establishing themselves as the premier groups of teams in the sport. Adding one of these programs to your stable can revitalize a manufacturer in short order; for proof, just look at how Joe Gibbs Racing has turned around the Toyota banner in '08.
But what about Dodge? There's no such team that stands out. As one driver told me the past few weeks, it's a program that's got a lot of good ... but no one great. The top of the heap is as muddled as the Democratic Primaries these days. Do you choose Penske Racing -- Daytona 500 winners enduring a disappointing aftermath with Newman and Busch -- or Gillett Evernham Motorsports, still recovering from a 2007 nightmare in which the entire three-car program went winless? Neither one seems to be an enticing option as it is, with both engineering-based programs struggle to find the necessary balance with the Car of Tomorrow -- especially on intermediate tracks.
"It's just hard to find where that fine line of making the right adjustment is right now," said Evernham crew chief Kenny Francis at Texas this month. "You can be fine, making adjustments and helping the car, then all of a sudden it's completely different." More at SI.com