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Dodge looks to go out on a championship note

October 05, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing have turned Dodge's exit from the sport into a possibly title party. (Getty)

Involvement with Penske, NASCAR ending but maybe not before possible title

DOVER, Del. -- It's an unprecedented situation in which Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing find themselves.

Three weeks into the Chase, the 28-year-old driver of the iconic No. 2 Miller Lite car leads the Sprint Cup standings with a venerable automotive brand that's ticketed for NASCAR extinction at the end of the season.

"Dodge has really performed with us from an engineering standpoint [despite their exit from the sport after 2012]. From my perspective, we made this decision together. I think this is a partnership. ... Sometimes they end."

--ROGER PENSKE

Penske has opted to field Fords next season, leaving Dodge without a NASCAR team to carry its banner in 2013. Ironically, Penske has never been this close to Cup glory as it is right now with Dodge. The manufacturer, which returned to the sport in 2001 after a 24-year absence, hasn't won a championship since 1975 when Richard Petty was the driver. No Dodge driver had ever won two races in the Chase and no Dodge driver has led the Chase standings this late in the season.

Until now.

"It's very, very cool but, in my opinion, not unexpected," said Ralph Gilles president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports, Chrysler Group LLC . "We knew this was coming. We knew we had the right ingredients and Brad [Keselowski] has been just incredible, showing his maturity as a driver.

"It's been a dream for Roger, for us, for Brad, for everyone. Brad is a social media darling. We have the only two-car team [in the Chase]. It's a fairytale story and, for The Captain [Roger Penske], this is a big deal, getting so close [to a championship]. We're counting our blessings but not trying to celebrate anything just yet."

Penske, a long-time racing legend and Motorsports Hall-of-Famer, who, as an owner, can boast a record 15 Indianapolis 500 victories courtesy of 10 different drivers. His highly successful business ventures and racing interests have included partnerships with not only Dodge and Ford but also Chevrolet, American Motors and Mercedes-Benz.

"I look up to folks like [Rick] Hendrick and Joe Gibbs and [Richard] Childress and [Jack] Roush -- the other teams that have been so good [in NASCAR]," Penske said. "We've never had a chance to get to the top [although] we were close a couple times with Rusty [Wallace].

"We've been representing Dodge now for 10 years. Obviously, this is our last year. We want to go out on a high note."

Keselowski is doing his part with five of his nine career victories in Cup this season. Heading to Talladega this week, he leads the points standings by five over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

"It's a unique situation for sure," said Keselowski, minutes after a Victory Lane celebration that doused everyone and everything -- from the Monster Mile trophy to Miss Sprint Cup -- in alternating showers of champagne and Miller Lite.

"But it's one I know we're committed to making the most out of. We have a shot at winning the championship. Certainly, it would be very special to do that considering the circumstances."

Gilles noted he was confident Penske had the right driver in Keselowski, who has also won three Nationwide races for Dodge this season.

"A lot of people were worried that Brad seemed talented but was not consistent," Gilles said. "We saw consistency in the data a couple years back. We're very proud of Brad. We've been texting each other the last couple of months. His family has a long history with Dodge, so there's a lot of personal respect going on. He really wants to run to the finish line together. A lot of that's about his love for Dodge but also for Mr. Penske."

Although Dodge will no longer field a NASCAR team in 2013, Penske says his organization is not being treated like a lame duck. It's still receiving all it needs to complete its 2012 title quest.

"Number one, we're certainly not on an island," Penske said. "Dodge has really performed with us from an engineering standpoint. They committed to us three or four years ago as we became [their] only team. From my perspective, we made this decision together. [This time] they didn't want to commit long term to have drivers and people. That was one of the things we had to do in order to go forward and build this team."

Penske also stated he and Dodge retain a highly positive relationship despite their inability to strike a deal beyond this season.

"I think one of the great things is that we're friends," he said. "We're a Dodge dealer. We represent a number of the brands. I think this is a partnership. ... Sometimes they end."

That partnership is a long way from over, though, particularly when it comes to Dodge's ability to maximize its marketing efforts.

Dodge & Penske

All-time statistics from the brand, team partnership
Yr.WT5T10Pole
'04314259
'05116338
'0619198
'07213296
'0827181
'09212280
'1029203
'11518304
'12514221

"A lot of people expected [Dodge] to shrug our shoulders," Gilles said. "But this comes at a very critical juncture as we are exiting [NASCAR] next year. We spent a lot more on the infield side in terms of the fan side this year and everything has fallen into place for us on the track. That's great for us. Dodge is being talked about even though we have only two of the 43 cars.

"Roger is really an up-and-up businessman. Our engineering team, everyone at the shop -- we're all pulling together. Everyone wants to go out on that high note. That's the feeling everywhere -- our side, their side. They're loving this moment and this is putting a great exclamation point on a great 10-year relationship."

Penske agrees that the relationship remains a two-way street.

"There's no disincentive for me, Brad, Paul [Wolfe, crew chief] or anybody on the team not to perform at the highest level," he said. "We want to represent them in a first-class way. The greatest thing we could do would be to bring a championship to Dodge this year. At the moment, we represent them. They're partners. We're going to do our best."

And Keselowski echoes that message.

"I can't say strongly enough how committed we are to finding a way to be successful," Keselowski said. "I like how Roger has great class and control of the situation to where everybody within Penske Racing knows that message: We're going to do the best we can for [Dodge] as the year runs out."

Of course, Penske and Keselowski wouldn't be in this position if not for outstanding performance, both from their organization and their cars. Gilles suggested that things might have been even better this season had Dodge not struggled early in the season with a contamination issue in the new fuel injection system. Two 32nd-place finishes in the first three races left Keselowski briefly 22nd in the points standings.

"We put the whole cavalry on it to find the problem," Gilles said. "It took a lot of trial and error. Turns out it was very microscopic particles in the system that wouldn't bother a carburetor but bothered fuel injection."

If there was ever proof that Dodge had its issues remedied it came Sunday at Dover, where fuel mileage played a vital role in Keselowski's victory,

"An unbelievable day," said Wolfe, summing up the victory. "That was a type of performance that we needed to stay in this championship and we showed today that we're going to continue to be there every week.

"Dodge gives us great fuel mileage and all the guys back at the engine shop give this team engines that allow us to get the fuel mileage we need to win races like this. A great job by everyone involved."

Travis Geisler, Penske's director of competition, offered similar praise after Keselowski's first win at Dover.

"Great Dodge horsepower. Great Dodge fuel mileage," Geisler gushed. "What an effort by everyone on the team -- just a perfect day."

And thus, the fairy tale continues.

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