Where is this 2013 Dodge today? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Precisely one year ago Dodge execs unveiled their new 2013 NASCAR Charger, right here, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, on a brilliant blue-sky afternoon.
Spiffy Dodge Red of course.
Just where that stocker is at the moment is unclear. Probably lonesome in some warehouse somewhere.
The car that never really was.
Dodge didn't make it to the starting line for this season. Dodge/Chrysler/Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne didn't even show up for Brad Keselowski's championship celebration last fall at Homestead; he was too busy attending other racing business in Austin.
Dodge's first NASCAR championship since 1975...and the boss was too busy to hoist a brew with Brad.
Don't think that didn't go unnoticed in the racing world.
So Keselowski is now playing for Team Ford, and with a pair of fourths in the season's first two Sprint Cup races, he's looking pretty good.
Keselowski has been side-by-side with Jimmie Johnson down the stretch at both Daytona and Phoenix, keeping their dueling alive.
Here though Kes may have to be an overachiever to keep that pace. This is a great track for Johnson, with four wins, and with the best running average. Kes, on the other hand, is still looking for a top-10.
Marchionne won't be here, of course. Not unless NASCAR officials are willing to make a few concessions and let Ferrari in the game.
Marchionne is in Geneva this week, at another of those ubiquitous car shows. No, that's not Geneva in the Finger Lakes, just down the road from Watkins Glen....
Ex-Dodge boss Bob Wildberger (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For a car maker whose forte is power and speed, Dodge is a strange no-show this season. No one has really provided much of a reason for its withdrawal.
Wondering if Dodge might be planning a NASCAR return eventually?
Well, let's talk to one of the key figures in Dodge's 2001 NASCAR return, Bob Wildberger.
And maybe we need next to round up some Dodge car dealers. After all it was Dodge's U.S. dealers who okayed the 2001 return and helped bankroll it.
Wonder how they're feeling about being on the sidelines right now? Talk about lost marketing opportunities....
Now Wildberger left this part of the game six years ago, so he concedes he's not that up to date with the inside politics. The Wildberger-Ted Flack-Jim Julio-Lou Patane- Dieter Zetsche era is long gone.
"When a manufacturer comes into NASCAR, any project you do like that, you need to leverage," Wildberger says. "And our first year back, we painted Daytona red. We sponsored tracks (like Darlington Raceway). We got the UAW involved. We gained a lot of value through all that.
"NASCAR presents a phenomenal marketing opportunity. It's what you make of it....
"And at the same time, it's a great opportunity for NASCAR, because NASCAR is able to expand its base and bring new people into the sport who may not have been there otherwise. Like new sponsors...
"There is a whole different fan base here -- people who drive Dodges.
"I believe that as much today as I did in 2001.
Among the Dodge team owners: Evernham, Richard Petty, Mark Melling, Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, and Bill Davis.
"So many of the top teams were locked up with another manufacturer, so we had to be creative," Wildberger said.
"And we ended up with 10 cars and five teams at that first race."
For whatever reasons, that roster got whittled down to just Penske at the end.
Kasey Kahne and Ray Evernham, in the good ol' days (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"My congratulations to Roger Penske and his guys; that is the classiest group of people," Wilderberger says.
Remember back when Penske first moved to Dodge, he was at the time with Ford.
"Dieter Zetsche said 'See if we can make some kind of deal with Roger,'" Wildberger recalled.
"The next morning I was with Roger on his Lear jet down to Charlotte, to see his facilities.
"Roger is a person I admire; he has a nice, clean way of doing business -- everything is on the table. Everyone is straight with each other; we all know what we need. And we did a deal.
"I learned a lot from Roger, new ways of doing business."
That was then, this is now.
If Marchionne were interested in returning to NASCAR, how hard would it be, how long would it take to turn things back on?
"Anyone who puts enough effort into it, can get into this sport," Wildberger says slowly.
But he concedes it doesn't happen overnight. "There is a 'stutter' there," he says.
"But the sooner you come back, the less stutter you have.
"Right now they've only been out two races. Now if you're out three years, it's a whole different game.
"Whether or not they have any plans, I have no knowledge.
Getting back in would be a chore, but it wouldn't be insurmountable.
"Dodge is reasonably current (in technology) right now; so we're not talking about having to make up as much ground as we had to in 2001."
And Wildberger does know quite well how much work it was to make Dodge's 2001 return happen, after more than 20 years on the sidelines.
"It was 500 days," Wildberger says, from the official announcement in the fall of 1999 -- at New York City's Waldorf, of Ray Evernham leaving Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick and Chevrolet to take the job, to Dodge's debut.
That debut was at Daytona, and it was successful -- Bill Elliott on the pole.
That season was a great one too, with Sterling Marlin enjoying his best season ever, making a strong run for the title, leading the points late in the season in fact, when he broke his neck in a crash and had to sit out.
When Dodge made that 1999 announcement of its plans to return, "people thought we had things on the boards, thought we had an engine started.....
"But we didn't have anything. We didn't even have the piece of paper that was clean yet.
"We obviously had to go find teams (and crews), and there was a lot of clandestine negotiating. We hired one team over that Christmas holiday, and New Year's Eve I was at a Kinko's faxing letters back and forth...so on Monday we'd have 'em all locked up.
"That 500 days, that was the most fun I'd ever had in my life."
Dodge's final victory? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)