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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

2009 critical year for Dodges: Will they re-emerge as contenders or continue struggles?

A lot has changed since 2008, a season that saw the embarrassment of not one Dodge making the Chase for the Cup.

Heading into 2009, the stable of Dodge cars has been trimmed to just two teams and seven drivers. Penske Racing will field cars for Kurt Busch, David Stremme and Sam Hornish, Jr. The newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports will feature Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmendinger.

When going up against heavyweights like the Chevys from the Hendrick and RCR camps, Jack Roush’s Fords or Joe Gibbs‘ Toyotas, it’s not going to be an easy battle to get back to Victory Lane and the Chase. Other than Kahne, who had a strong run in the middle of 2008, the Dodge camp struggled mightily last year and many improvements need to be made if success is going to come.

Dodge executives are putting on a hopeful front for 2009, saying they are confident a turnaround is on the way.

“You want to have a portfolio of drivers that can at any given time deliver a top-five or a victory,” said Mike Accavitti, director of the Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep brands. “We feel with the lineup that we have remaining that we can do that. The seven cars that we have -- or eight cars or six cars or whatever it ends up to be -- will be sufficient.”

Forgive me if I don’t share Accavitti’s confidence at this moment … I’ll have to see some success from the Dodges before I actually believe it will happen. This is a make-or-break year for the Dodge teams, and it’s being played out amid a much bigger battle for the very survival of Chrysler.

The tough economy and struggles of Detroit’s Big 3 automakers have made a dent in how much money is spent in the series. But the Dodge camp has taken the right approach by not cutting research for Cup engineering, and instead trimming promotions and pulling their support of the Truck Series teams. Even with lower budgets, the benefit of having fewer teams is there’s less spreading of the wealth to do, so that’s one thing that could help the Dodges this year.

The key to success will be to treat the seven cars like one big team and share information. If secrets are kept and this sharing doesn’t happen, I don’t see how the Dodge stable can emerge as competitors in 2009. Once you get past Kahne, Busch and Allmendinger, the rest of the lineup is pretty shaky. Stremme, Hornish, Sadler and Sorenson have been middle-of-the-pack guys or worse for most or all of their careers. If the cars they are driving aren’t of high quality, you can’t expect them to work miracles and end up in Victory Lane or the Chase.

Another year missing the Chase completely would be a disaster for the Dodge squadron, and would increase the brand’s growing reputation as the least competitive car make in the Cup series. That would bring up a whole new bunch of questions, such as whether Chrysler would just pull out of the sport completely (although that may happen anyway if Chrysler seeks to exist in its current form at some point in the future).

Assuming the Dodges continue in the sport, several years of futility could cause most of its drivers (including Kahne) to want to jump ship once their current contracts expire. At that point, they would have slow cars and weak drivers, making their entry almost pointless.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and things turn around in 2009.

Kyle Busch: 2009 Nationwide champ
It appears Kyle Busch will be completing a full schedule in the Nationwide Series this year. Considering how he pretty much dominated more than half the races he entered last year, you might as well put his name on the trophy already. I'll even go so far as to say that for the next decade or more, this disturbing trend of the Cup guys swooping down and stealing a championship trophy in the minor leagues will continue ... and through it all, the series will have less and less fans.

The days when young, up-and-coming drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth could battle each other for a championship on their way up to the big leagues appears to be over, and that's pretty lame.


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