Brad Keselowski's championship would be a bittersweet moment for Dodge

Jonathan Ferrey

When Dodge returned to NASCAR in 2001 after a 22-year absence, the manufacturer had grandiose expectations, a seemingly open checkbook and a mastermind car owner in Ray Evernham.

At the time, it seemed all the pieces were in place for Dodge to be a major player for years to come.

That belief was solidified when in the very first race back, Bill Elliott sped to the Daytona 500 pole, followed by three Dodges finishing the inside the top 10. Dodge drivers won four times that first season with the manufacturer gradually becoming more competitive as the year moved along.

The next year, a Dodge-backed driver won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and led the standings for 27 of 36 weeks.

Yet, in what would be a recurring theme, the championship continued to elude Dodge.

But all that will likely change on Sunday.

Entering the final race of the year, Brad Keselowski is ahead of Jimmie Johnson by a comfortable 20-point margin and is on the verge of delivering Dodge its first Sprint Cup Series championship since Richard Petty did so in 1975 – nine years before Keselowski was even born.

However, the Detroit automaker that scratched and clawed to get to the top of the NASCAR mountaintop won't get to celebrate its accomplishment to the fullest.

This all stems from a stunning announcement back in March when Penske Racing – the lone team Dodge had hitched its wagon to for the last few years – declared it would be switching to Ford for 2013. It was a decision that left Dodge with few options for next season.

As a result, unable to find a suitable replacement, Dodge had little choice but to announce its withdrawal from NASCAR effective at the end of the year.

All of which means when the checkered flag waves Sunday on the 2012 season, it will also signal the end of Dodge's involvement in NASCAR for the foreseeable future.

The manufacturer that burst onto the scene with such promise will become nothing more than a footnote in the record book. A weekend intended for celebrating will instead be somewhat bittersweet.

After all the time, money, heartbreak, close calls and disappointment over the last 11 years, Dodge finally had the flagship organization in Penske which it always wanted. Penske is a team with stable ownership, secure sponsorship, the necessary resources to be consistently competitive and a young, marketable driver just entering his prime.

It's all there. However, Dodge won't get to enjoy any of the future spoils.

Instead, it will be on the sidelines – just like it was from 1978-2000 – wondering where it all went wrong. Officials will ask themselves why they weren't more proactive in re-signing Penske to a longer contract or why did they not have more teams in the fold like Chevrolet and Toyota both do in case a team unexpectedly flies the coop.

Those are reasonable questions that will likely haunt Dodge as it watches its rivals continue to win races and championships.

So as the confetti is falling and the champagne is being sprayed Sunday, Dodge officials will need to remember to take a moment to soak in the scene because it's something that won't be occurring anytime in the near future.

Call it a hollow victory if you will. It's one that hopefully won't take another 37 years for Dodge to replicate.

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