Whether or not Dodge actually returns to NASCAR at some point in the future – a possibility that was raised by an executive of Dodge's parent company recently – it’s important to remember that the manufacturer went out on top when it left the sport in 2012.
Thanks to driver Brad Keselowski, Dodge was able to part ways with NASCAR at the end of that season as a champion. It was the stock-car racing equivalent of dropping the microphone and walking off stage after a particularly impressive moment.
And, oh, it was an entertaining ride that season.
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Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Dodge Charger for Penske Motorsports (it would be another two years before the organization changed its name do “Team Penske”), earned owner Roger Penske his first and to date only NASCAR Premier Series championship by winning five races overall, including two in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.
He beat out Jimmie Johnson, who recently earned his record-tying seventh Premier Series championship, to win it.
“And you know what?” Keselowski said afterward. “I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do.”
Of course, everything that has come since that day for Keselowski and Penske has come without Dodge’s involvement.
It was an odd, lame-duck marriage between the Penske operation and the manufacturer for most of Keselowski’s 2012 championship season.
Penske announced in March that it would be switching manufacturers from Dodges, which it had run since 2003, to Fords beginning with the 2013 season. Ralph Gilles, who headed up the Dodge Motorsports program at the time, later admitted that the Penske decision “kind of caught us by surprise and we never really recovered.”
As the realization hit Dodge executives that Penske’s defection signaled a death knell for them in NASCAR at the time – they had no interest in signing on with a mid-level team and there were no options with top-level teams – something strange happened.
They suddenly bonded together with Penske in a way perhaps neither could have anticipated. Dodge engineers and support personnel teamed with Penske’s brain trust to develop a singular, laser-like focus where they were all-in perhaps like never before to help Keselowski win the championship.
From Dodge’s perspective, the motivation was obvious and crystal clear. It was so they could go out of NASCAR on top, heads held high.
As it unfolded, Gilles put it in perspective best when he said of Dodge’s final season: “I just want to take all the Dodge fans and give them a big hug. I wish we could all have a beer together.”
In one sense, they did have one final toast together. It seemed fitting that Keselowski drove the No. 2 Miller Lite-sponsored Dodge Charger to the title.