Brad Keselowski: on the brink of becoming the first Dodge NASCAR champion since 1975...and perhaps the last Dodge NASCAR champion (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Let's put this in some perspective:
The last time Dodge won the NASCAR championship, Bill Gates was only 20 years old, and he had just created a company he called Micro-Soft.
Fast-forward from 1975 to Sunday morning November 18th, 2012 -- with Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske on the brink of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup title, in Dodge Chargers.
It looks to be a very historic day, for Kes, the Captain, and Dodge-Chrysler-Fiat...and reflect back to the vision in late 1999 that Ray Evernham and Dodge execs had when they packaged a new return-to-NASCAR effort, to be backed by Dodge's thousands of car dealers around the country.
That effort debuted officially at Daytona in 2001, with Bill Elliott (he qualed on the pole and finished fifth). Evernham's goal was to win this championship, and he made major changes in the traditional organization of stock car teams. Evernham won 13 times as official team owner, with Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield, before that operation went into fizzle, in that complicated, and not very pretty, reshuffling with George Gillett.
Evernham never got to celebrate that Dodge championship....
And now, 432 Cup races after that 2001 debut, Dodge is officially putting this NASCAR operation on the corporate chopping block.
So if/when Keselowski and Penske hoist that championship trophy here Sunday evening, it will be a bittersweet moment for this sport.
And sad, really. Especially for those stock car fans who well recall the MoPar legend....
Dodge execs have pretty much washed their hands of NASCAR, rejecting offers from Penske to keep things going in some way. They don't even go to the track much any more. They skipped last Sunday's championship key in Phoenix, and it's unclear if they'll be here to celebrate this historical moment either.
Yes, there has been some speculation that Dodge might return to NASCAR in 2014, if it can find some top operation to back.
However there really hasn't been much enthusiasm apparent up there in the corporate offices.
And in this sport, the line is 'When you're gone, you're gone, baby, gone.'
Ray Evernham, the legendary crew chief turned car owner, who brought Dodge back to NASCAR prominence (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Which brings us to Howard Comstock, one of the key engineers in the Dodge racing operation, a sturdy, long-time fixture in the NASCAR garage. A straight-shooter.
Howard Comstock is one of the good guys in this sport. He's been around for maybe 30 years now.
And he wants to keep the Dodge dream alive.
There was no hint really of this Dodge dropout back in March. Even with Penske's announcement moving to Ford, and all those questions raised about how in the world Dodge execs could have let Roger Penske get away, there was considerable enthusiasm when the 2013 NASCAR Dodge was unveiled at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
And Comstock and Dodge men have continued with the 2013 project throughout the year.
NASCAR's big-picture 2013 is a radical philosophical shift for the sanctioning body, which has given Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge considerable leeway in developing the new, 'character-driven' models.
Yes, the NASCAR 2013 is way, way behind schedule, and new rules are being written weekly. But the project itself has drawn praise from the car makers, whose collaborative efforts are cloaked in much secrecy.
Howard Comstock, a veteran NASCAR engineer, and head of Dodge's NASCAR programs...for at least one more day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While Dodge execs aren't interested in any official NASCAR effort next season, men involved in this effort have hopes at least of some smaller, perhaps 'privateer' effort.
"The 2013 Dodge is approved, and we have all the parts made in CAD, and we've fabricated parts, though we haven't stamped anything (in steel)," Comstock says.
"Right now we don't have plans yet to stamp the parts. Yet. But if the decision is made to stamp the parts (to allow a team to build some cars), we'd have parts available."
Or an outside vendor could stamp the parts.
And these particular parts Comstock is referring to are really only a small part of any Sprint Cup racing effort.
Engines? Penske has some, and so does Joey Arrington. "They're actively building and developing engines," Comstock says.
"There is a tremendous amount of really good quality, high-tech stuff on the market today.
"We haven't thrown everything in the dumpster."
The 2013 NASCAR Dodge, unwrapped at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in March. But will it ever see a NASCAR race? Or will it become a footnote to stock car racing history? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now down at the technical level of these four 2013s, there is increasing pressure on NASCAR and the car makers to come up with a set of solid rules, since each driver will need about 14 or 15 cars for the new season, and that's a lot of construction.
Comstock points out this 2013 is a major project.
"It's a brand new design concept, remember," Comstock says, referring to the dramatic shift away from the 'common template' philosophy of the car-of-tomorrow (which first ran in 2007) to the 2013s which are to have maybe only 10 percent of the body parts in common design.
"It is a great engineering exercise.
"But look at the current car; we've all been developing it for the last five years....to get to a package that we're still not happy with.
"So being able to solve the 2013 equation in a couple of tests is probably not realistic."
Ray Evernham. A bittersweet weekend at Homestead for the man who brought Dodge back to NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Aero-matching such a diverse collection of cars, and trying to incorporate design features for better racing, particularly at the mid-sized 1-1/2-mile tracks, where racing this season has been so downright boring, has been a challenge.
"NASCAR is trying to do a lot of things here -- and it's really a dual development project: one, design a new car, and two, develop a new aero package," Comstock says.
"There have been suggestions from all sides. Some have worked, some have not.
"As we get closer, we can zero in on a rules package.
"But the car itself - the body -- is fixed, and we could go build race cars. Now the under-trays (radiator pans) might be a little different, the front splitters might be a little different, the spoilers might be a little different....but mostly those are bolt-ons.
"So teams can go forward with building cars.
"This is going to be a better race car. It looks better, and it will drive better.
"But it's been a big project. And there are a lot of opinions. And everyone is trying to be fair to everyone else.
"These cars are not the same as the current cars. They are very different cars. And to hone the rules so no one gets an advantage is a very big job.
"And as the new season starts, there may be more adjustments."
Bill Elliott: put that first NASCAR Dodge on the Daytona 500 pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Comstock has a suggestion: that NASCAR change the way it measures a car's ride-height. "We drive these cars on 'bump-stops' now, and that's not good.
"We need to be able to drive these cars on springs and shocks the way they are intended. If we do that, grip levels will go up, and the racing will be better.
"Right now we're putting little-bitty springs in the car, to hold the car up as it goes through inspection. Then watch as the cars roll down pit road afterwards -- they already back on the ground.
"That's wrong. Let the teams run the springs the car will race on.
"Watch these cars go through the corners on bump-stops on bumpy tracks (like Kentucky) -- it's terrible."
Maybe that's worth a try at the next 2013 test, at Charlotte in three weeks.
Kasey Kahne (L) and general manager Sammy Johns: part of Evernham's Dodge brain trust...back when (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Adding a 'wicker' hook-lip to the rear spoiler is a possibility, in adding rear downforce.
But NASCAR is still dead-set against the two-car drafts at Daytona and Talladega, and engine cooling aspects are being set to keep drivers from running nose to tail.
In another interesting twist here, the front and rear bumpers of the 2013s will not necessarily align, as they currently do. The current bumpers match so perfectly that cars can push each other around the track without spinning out.
The 2013s however are not held to any particular bumper-high rules.
Some brands might opt for higher rear bumpers, to increase downforce. That in turn could, if a rival's front bumper is 'mismatched,' lead to more spinouts.
Which brands are going in which direction?
Comstock laughs: "Keep watching. You'll find out when someone gets looped."
Brilliant weather for Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske...and Dodge's last NASCAR run (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What about horsepower?
NASCAR has been testing 2013s with as much as 200 horsepower less. Current engines have 900 horsepower.
"I think the 150 pounds of mass we're taking out of the car is a huge step in the right direction," Comstock says.
"And I understand the horsepower situation is something NASCAR has to look at. But I personally don't think that's the way to go. You're going backwards; the corner entry speed is lower but the speed in the middle of the corner is higher.
"I'm not saying less horsepower won't work; I'm saying you have to be careful with the aerodynamic package you put with it.
"And I don't think in the couple of swings they've taken at it that they've got it right.
"Each week out here who is the fastest guy? It's not the guy who's fastest at the start-finish line; it's the guy who's fastest in the middle of the corner....getting grip."
Ray Evernham always dreamed of bringing Dodge that long-elusive NASCAR championship... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And that's the state of this NASCAR 2013 project as the Sprint Cup 2012 season comes to a close...and as stock car crews prepare for the next round of 2013 tests.
But for Comstock and the rest of the NASCAR-Dodge guys?
Well, unless Sergio Marchionne, the big boss (in Austin, Texas this weekend for the Formula 1 race), changes his mind about marketing his street cars through NASCAR racing, it could be the end of the line.
That makes Sunday's Homestead 400 perhaps too sadly memorable.
And if indeed nothing happens?
"Guess I'm going fishing next year," Comstock says slowly, painfully.
Dodge's Brad Keselowski, on the eve of the final race of the NASCAR season...and Dodge's final NASCAR race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)