Dodge still sees its potential in sport

LAS VEGAS -- The chief of Dodge Motorsports is hopeful that the manufacturer will return to NASCAR in the not-too-distant future.

"Going forward, we're going to take the year off, evaluate the potential," Ralph Gilles told ESPN.com Tuesday after a panel discussion at the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association Show on the future of motorsports. "We also did a lot of data mining. Part of the issue our management team wanted was, what are we really getting out of NASCAR? We only have two cars out of a huge field. Are we getting our money's worth?

"Ironically, this year we got beyond our money's worth. How you can replicate that? I don't know. That's what we're looking at right now."

Dodge announced in August that it would leave NASCAR in 2013. The decision came after Penske Racing, the lone Dodge team, announced in March that it would move to Ford next year.

Many wondered if that would cripple Penske Racing when it got to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but with three races left, Brad Keselowski is only two points behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

"It's tearing me up right now, to be honest with you," said Gilles, whose official title is president and CEO of the SRT Brand and Chrysler Group LLC. "It's a very emotional time for the whole team right now. We didn't expect to be this good. So on the one side I'm happy because we're going out with a bang.

"On the other side it's, 'Man, the potential.' It's so hard to get to this level and have all the different things working so well. Everything we've been working for for 11 years is happening."

Gilles said the perception that Penske Racing is in a lame-duck situation isn't fair when it comes to the ability to compete for a title.

"The minute the deal was cut [with Ford], Roger [Penske] and I shook hands and said we're going to do everything in our power to win this series," he said. "Our guys, they all committed to me. We fought fuel-injection issues. We fought fuel economy issues. We had block cooling problems.

"Our guys never let up and they won't until [the finale at] Homestead."

The matter of returning to the sport, whether that is in 2014 or after, is finding an organization as strong and viable as Penske Racing. The lack of such a team left Dodge with little option but to pull out for 2013.

"The Dodge brand is interested," Gilles said of a return. "It would be hard to replace Roger, because Roger has a long-term deal with Ford. The capacity isn't there to have that right now. It's going to be tough, but we'll have to look at it."

NASCAR executive Steve O'Donnell, also a member of the SEMA panel, said he was hopeful Dodge will return. Keselowski, in Vegas to promote sponsors for his Truck Series team, was adamant the manufacturer will return.

Gilles said the move toward more brand identity with the 2013 car could help expedite that.

"We were one of the first to start conversations to make the cars look more like the street cars when I took over motorsports at Dodge," Gilles said. "Here we are, it's about to happen. So it's a bit of a shame we won't be able to enjoy it.

"But those are symbols of NASCAR doing the right thing."

Playing into the decision to leave NASCAR was Chrysler's move to market the new Dart, a high-tech compact car.

"And the Dart customer does not watch NASCAR," Gilles said. "There's a finite amount of marketing dollars. The priority was to put our money in a few different places.

"NASCAR is still relevant. Matter of fact, NASCAR has done a nice job of reinventing itself in the last few years. But they probably needed to be a little more aggressive a few years ago."

O'Donnell said the 2013 car is one of the reasons he's optimistic Dodge will return at some point.

"What we heard from the manufacturers is they're the happiest they've been in a long time dealing with us," he said. "To be able to unveil that car that looks like the street car is certainly a good step in the right direction. If you have good racing, people are going to show up and like it."