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Only Yesterday: Dodge’s Rise, Fall and Failed Revival in NASCAR

“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

That phrase could reasonably be the battle cry for NASCAR from its inception through the early ’90s, arguably. To little extent, it still holds true today. Still, NASCAR is searching for a fourth manufacturer to join its current lineup of Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota, as well as an opportunity to showcase a brand for consumers.

For several years, we have heard rumors that a new manufacturer could become a reality in the near future. Of course, this ramps up the speculation that fans have pondered for nearly a decade: the return of Dodge.

For the past few years, the intensity of that speculation has only grown, especially with the Next Gen car and the future of the sport.

Reports and whistleblowers have hinted at a near return for the Stellantis-owned company. Unfortunately, those hopes took a sizable right hook this past week when Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern tweeted that talks between Dodge and NASCAR have stalled.

It is another gut punch in a downward cycle of hope that the brand would return to the sport. So the question arises, how did we get here?

The Rise

Dodge first entered the NASCAR scene back in 1953.

Dodge recorded its first win when Lee Petty drove his No. 42 Dodge Coronet to victory at Palm Beach Speedway on Feb 1, 1953. A year later, it was a part of Petty’s 1954 title run to land Dodge its first title.

In 1964, Dodge showed up with a dangerously good 426 Hemi engine. Likewise, the fellow Chrysler-owned Plymouth Belvedere featured the same engine. Together, the manufacturers won 26 of 61 races. That is really, really good … too good. NASCAR would ban the 426 Hemi engine following the season.

The Charger first entered the scene in 1966.

One of the exciting aspects of NASCAR back then was the manufacturer war of seeing which company could bring the fastest car each week, even if that meant switching models. Despite some issues, the Charger was an instant hit. David Pearson famously drove a Cotton Owen’s-owned No. 6 to the title that year, winning 15 races.

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Dodge arguably hit the high point of their first tenure in NASCAR in the ’70s. The brand showed up with the new Dodge Charger Daytona, a car featuring a nose cone and wings on the rear of the car. The company had originally entered the car in 1969, but the amount grew in 1970.

On March 24, 1970, the speeds of cars went to new heights when Buddy Baker reached 200.447 mph in a tire test at Talladega Superspeedway in a Dodge. It was the first time a NASCAR car had recorded a lap over 200 mph.

Bobby Isaac grabbed his lone Cup title that season in the famous No. 71 K&K Dodge, earning 11 wins and 32 top fives. Isaac won 36 races in his career with the Chrysler-owned company. Between the Daytona and its sister, the Plymouth Superbird, the “Winged Warriors” won 14 races. Ford and Mercury both hopped on with the Aero Cars idea, bringing out the Ford Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spolier II. And NASCAR did not like it at all.

Between a larger, powerful engine and the aerodynamics, NASCAR took notice of the speeds. Following 1970, they banned the “Aero Cars,” with engines bigger than 305 cubic inches. Part of the reason too was because the cars were straying away from the typical street cars people drove. My, look at how we have fallen since.

Richard Petty added to both his and Dodge’s legacy by winning the 1972 title while driving both a Dodge and Plymouth. Two years later, he did it again solely with Dodge in his iconic No. 43 … and again in 1975. Between ’74 and ’75, ‘The King” won 23 races at NASCAR’s highest level. Overall, Petty is the winningest Dodge driver, reaching victory lane 37 times.

Dodge earned its final victory of the 20th century at Ontario Motor Speedway on Nov. 20, 1977. Neil Bonnett topped Petty to earn the brand their final win before leaving the sport following 1984. At this point, it seemed that the storybook had come to a close.

The Return

According to Jeff Gordon’s autobiography Jeff Gordon: Racing to Back to the Front – My Memoir, the day was Sept. 10, 1999.

Gordon was having one of the most dominant runs and crew chief pairings in NASCAR history with Ray Evernham atop the box. The two had won three titles and 47 races together in just six-and-a-half years.

It was that Friday night that Evernham visited Gordon’s hotel room in Richmond, Va. to let his driver know that he would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports to form a new team under the Dodge banner. It was one of the biggest splits in NASCAR history, but it also led to a new chapter for Chrysler.

Evernham Motorsports began its stint in 2001, with 1988 champion Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Dodge and Casey Atwood in the No. 19 Dodge. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Bill Davis Racing, Melling Racing, and Petty Enterprises also switched to the Dodge nameplate.

Sterling Marlin earned the first win for Dodge since 1977 with CGR at Michigan International Speedway. Later that year, Evernham’s team broke through when Elliott passed Atwood to snap a seven-year winless drought. “Awesome Bill” would win four times with Evernham. Finally, it seemed that Dodge was officially back to winning in NASCAR.

The 2003-2004 era marked Dodge’s next chapter at the Cup level. Team Penske switched from Ford to Dodge. After Elliott stepped away from full-time racing in 2004, Evernham tapped rising star Kasey Kahne to fill his shoes. Between Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield at Evernham, the Penske duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, and Ganassi, it appeared Dodge had its future for the long haul.

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Mayfield won two races in the No. 19 between 2004-2005, qualifying for the Chase both seasons. Kahne had an impressive rookie season in ’04 and won a series-high six races in 2006. Mayfield appeared to be having a career resurgence and Kahne was dubbed the next superstar of the sport.

Then, it all came crashing down.

In 2006, Mayfield’s performance took a sharp turn downwards to the point where he was barely inside the top 35 in points.

This sparked a nasty spat with Evernham, with Mayfield accusing Evernham of being absent from daily operations, focusing his attention on a personal relationship with development driver Erin Crocker. Mayfield was released following the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Evernham accusing him of intentionally crashing to drop the No. 19 out of the top 35 in points. Elliott Sadler eventually filled the seat, staying in the No. 19 through 2010.

That was only the beginning of Evernham Motorsports’ trials. Soon after the Mayfield controversy, Evernham sold the majority share of his team to George Gillett, rebranding the three-car team to Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

The 2007 season didn’t go much better, as Kahne had one of his worst seasons, while Sadler and Scott Riggs finished 25th and 36th in points. Dodge itself struggled with the new nose on the Charger and the new Car of Tomorrow with the Dodge Avenger, recording only three wins.

Despite a more stable 2008 season that saw Kahne win two races, as well as the All-Star Race, all three GEM cars failed to make the Chase once again. Evernham’s struggles to hold a grasp on the team eventually were too much, as GEM merged with Petty Enterprises to form Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009.

The new deal seemed like a perfect match, right?

After all, it involved NASCAR’s winningest driver joining forces with the leader of the Dodge revival, plus foundational drivers in Kahne in Sadler. But not all grass is greener on the other side. In the midst of the 2008 Great Recession and automobile industry bailouts, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and halted payments to RPM. This affected RPM’s employees, payroll, and parts so much that the team switched to Ford in 2010. Within a few tumultuous years, the swift blows ended the foundation of Dodge’s return.

If you examine each manufacturer now, each one has the echelon in the group that teams can feed off of.

Chevrolet has Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota has Joe Gibbs Racing. At the time, Ford had Roush Fenway Racing (now RFK Racing). GEM was really the only hope Dodge had. However, Chip Ganassi Racing merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Chevrolet support. Bill Davis Racing switched to Toyota in 2007. And the remaining teams simply were underpowered, small teams. With RPM’s switch to Ford, that left Team Penske as the last hope.

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As bad as it all seemed, hinging hopes on Penske was not a bad option, though not optimal. Kurt Busch had established a home (though that too didn’t last) after a nasty departure from Roush and Brad Keselowski was a rising phenom. Busch won 10 races from 2006-2011 and Keselowski broke through for three wins in 2011, his second full-time season.

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In spite of a chaotic departure for Busch from Penske, Dodge’s faith in its lone full-time team paid off. Keselowski only got better in 2012, recording five wins, 13 top fives, and 23 top 10s en route to his first Cup championship in Penske’s No. 2 Dodge. It was the first title for Penske at the Cup level and first for Dodge since 1975. Long before that, however, Dodge’s future was up in the air.

In March 2012, Penske announced that the team would switch to Ford in 2013. Ralph Gilles, who oversaw Dodge’s motorsports operation, said it “kind of caught us by surprise and we never recovered.” Despite the title run from Keselowski, the manufacturer switches, automobile recession of 2008, and constant juggling was too much for Chrysler.

The Penske move landed the fatal blow.

Rumors had been circulating for a while that Dodge would be departing NASCAR, despite other rumors that Furniture Row Racing and RPM could switch to the brand. When the manufacturer was absent at a 2012 Gen 6 test at Martinsville Speedway, it was all but official that it would not return.

That brings us to where we are today.

Rumors of a Dodge return get louder and wilder each year they are out. Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, RPM (which is now Petty GMS Motorsports), and most recently RFK Racing have been rumored to switch to Dodge. NASCAR’s potential electric components or a possible all-electric exhibition series fits right into the mold of Dodge’s new focus on electric cars, which includes motorsports. Once again, though, those odds are a longshot.

Overall, Dodge recorded 217 wins, two Manufacturers’ Championships, and was a part of nine championships at the Cup level.

If 2012 was the end for Dodge, it can still say it went out on top. It is an ironic circumstance considering the rise of Dodge in the ’50s, a quiet fall in the ’80s, and a return that yielded promising results only to be crushed one blow at a time.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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Tom B

I remember someone from Fiat, who owned Dodge at that time, said they would not participate in that NASCAR Circus. Europeans think American racing is run unprofessionally.

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