Trouble mounts for Dodge program
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."
The struggles endured by their counterparts at Penske are of particular interest, especially considering Kurt Busch's second-half surge in 2007 that pushed him into the Chase amidst talk he'd be a dark-horse title contender. But the team struggled in the 10-race playoff, and Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson have yet to come even remotely close to the same form in 2008. They're 16th in the points and haven't cracked the top 10 since Daytona. With the void created by Busch's struggles -- he's the 2004 Cup champ -- someone else within Dodge must step up to be their No. 1 option.
Problems paying the bills
Of Dodge's 12 full-time programs, three are still collecting full-time sponsorship for the season: Patrick Carpentier's No. 10, Robby Gordon's No. 7, and Dario Franchitti's No. 40. Looking ahead to 2009, both Petty Enterprises cars are facing holes in sponsorship, and Target, despite repeated denials, may be looking to leave Chip Ganassi's No. 41. You can't run up front in NASCAR without money these days. And as the pocketbooks tighten around the circuit, it seems the Dodges have joined up with Ford (two unsponsored cars) in feeling it more than most.
Ironically, these money troubles came shortly after Dodge itself pulled sponsorship from both the No. 9 and No. 19 programs following the end of last season. Both those teams found financial replacements, but with others struggling, the manufacturer may need to get back in the business of cutting the checks if it wants all its other teams to stay afloat.
Not enough seat time elsewhere
Last season, Juan Pablo Montoya was the toast of the Nationwide Series as well as in Cup, winning the race at Mexico City to go along with a handful of top 5 and top 10 finishes as a rookie. But this weekend, Montoya won't be defending his title South of the Border. In fact, the Colombian's not planning to run in the series at all this season.
He isn't alone. Of Dodge's 12 full-time driver contingent, just two veterans are running more than just a handful of races elsewhere: Bobby Labonte and Dario Franchitti. Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and Kyle Petty are among the veterans not competing in another major series at all right now, a stark comparison to what current point leaders Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton are doing: both have won at the Nationwide Series level already, with Busch mulling the potential of running a full-time schedule in all three top NASCAR divisions.
Newman, especially, laments the decision not to gain additional experience in the midst of this recent slump. "Seat time, no matter what car you're driving at a certain race track, is very important," he said at Texas. "Race tracks change, characteristics change. Getting a taste of a few things make a big difference for your potential Sunday race."
"In the Nationwide Series, you get the opportunity to feel [track changes] first, [and] then you know how to predict things. The combination of the tires -- typically the tires are identical, so you have an idea of the tire falloff and what the tires are going to feel like. So, there are huge advantages, not just pure racing in getting more experience in being a better race car driver."
Disappointing rookie performances
On the heels of Montoya's successful transition from open wheel, Dodge looked to build on that momentum with the addition of Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, and Sam Hornish, Jr. into the fold. But the experiment's blown up in their face to date; both Franchitti and Carpentier have failed to qualify at least once, and Hornish is struggling to simply stay above the top 35 cutoff line for a guaranteed spot. At this point last year, Montoya had finished a race in the top five. This season, none of the three have done better than 15th, with the drivers looking more like moving roadblocks than developing talent. With the signing of David Stremme as a new test driver for Penske this week, rumors have run rampant that Hornish will run at least the Indy 500, with a full-time move back to IRL a possibility. It's a rumor that's been repeatedly denied, but a story to watch if he still struggles as the season moves forward.
Clearly, struggling isn't an option for the Dodge teams without major changes. Heading to a restrictor-plate track for the first time since Daytona next week, now's a perfect time for the program to rediscover the teamwork that led it to early success. If they don't make some changes sometime soon, they might as well turn the lights out for 2008.