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CUP: Penske Sees Advantages With Dodge

It was easy for Dodge Chief Executive Officer Ralph Gilles to make it to all the Dodge stops on the 2010 Sprint Media Tour.

That’s because there was only one stop – Penske Racing.

With the split of Dodge and Richard Petty Motorsports, Penske Racing is the only Dodge-supported team left on the Sprint Cup circuit. Dodge is the only manufacturer to have just one organization fielding its cars on the Cup level.

Penske and Dodge think that relationship can work.

“There’s more influence today and more feel from a Dodge perspective, so anyone who said we might be at a disadvantage, I won’t trade places with anybody right now,” said Penske Racing owner Roger Penske, who owns dealerships that sell cars from various manufacturers.

Gilles reiterated last week that just because Dodge has ties to only one organization, that its interest in NASCAR isn’t waning.

“We had a lot of decisions to make as we went through the summer last year rebuilding our company [through bankruptcy] from the inside out,” Gilles said. “NASCAR was one of those decisions we had to make and it was a very short one. We decided to absolutely be committed. … We’re going to support NASCAR in a big, big way, not only by being there but also shedding some light through social media.

“I want to really weave the NASCAR effort into what Dodge is going to be all about.”

The stop on the media tour was just one of many in the Charlotte area for Gilles, who spent time at Penske Racing and went with the team principals to their meeting with NASCAR. Gilles said NASCAR President Mike Helton and NASCAR Chairman Brian France planned to visit him in Detroit in the next few weeks. Helton and France typically meet with manufacturer executives a few times a year.

Gilles and Penske have known each other for several years as Gilles was the head of the group that designed the Chrysler 300. Gilles was named to the CEO position last October, about five months after Fiat SpA bought much of Chrysler.

“The good news is he loves motorsports,” Penske said. “You can see it just listening to him. He’s trying to tie just not a name on the car or decal on the car. He’s trying to tie the whole experience to buying a Dodge product to racing.”

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When it comes to racing, Penske won’t have any other teams to rely on when it comes to Dodge. But it didn’t work much with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“They are a factory team in the truest sense of the word – one team, one manufacturer, one organization,” said TNT commentator Kyle Petty.

Only two of the seven Dodges – Penske’s Kurt Busch and RPM’s Kasey Kahne – made it into the Chase For the Sprint Cup last year. But that was two more than what made the Chase in 2008.

Penske said the team took a while to get a grasp on NASCAR’s new “car of tomorrow,” which was introduced in select races in 2007 and then full time in 2008.

“We got these COT cars, it took us a while,” Penske said. “We weren’t the greatest guys in 2008. We made a big step forward in 2009.”

Penske says the company’s improvement with the new car should help three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. have a breakout season in his third full year at the Cup level. Busch should not miss a step even with new crew chief Steve Addington and Penske also is optimistic about the future with newcomer Brad Keselowski.

And then there’s the Dodge relationship. In addition to being able to attend virtually every Goodyear tire test, Penske hopes to have the advantage of being the focal point of Dodge.

“We’ve got a competitive advantage – all the resources from a technical and marketing standpoint, our drivers and our sponsors are with Dodge,” Penske said. “This is just not put your name on the side of your car or put a decal on the car. It’s about selling cars and selling product.”

That belief stretches across the ocean to the office of Fiat SpA Chairman Sergio Marchionne, Penske said.

“They announced to all the financial community that part of their offense is going to be with Penske Racing and NASCAR,” Penske said. “[Marchionne] knows what Ferrari is to Fiat, he sees what NASCAR can be to the Dodge brand. We’ve got a great supporter there. He wants to win.”

One thing that Gilles would like from NASCAR is for the Cup car to eventually have some of the brand identity features that the new Nationwide car being introduced this year has. NASCAR worked with all four manufacturers to get their wind tunnel numbers the same but also having brand identity on the front end – and Dodge is using the Nationwide Series to promote its Challenger brand.

“We worked really hard to have aerodynamic parity in the design,” Gilles said. “So to me, it was a new dimension of cooperation. … There are really cool things that can happen and the pendulum has to swing as we go forward. The racing is awesome. The show itself is some of the best racing on TV.”

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