(Image courtesy Dodge and DriveSRT.com)

Could most powerful muscle cars ever made lead Dodge back to NASCAR?

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When Dodge left NASCAR after Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship (what better way to go out but on top, right?) in a Charger, company officials at the time left the door open to a possible return to the sport someday.

It could be a few years, maybe a decade or more. Then again, it may never happen.

But …

While there’s been absolutely zero news out of Dodge’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, about a potential return to NASCAR, other recent news could be construed that maybe something might be up.

After all, why would Dodge officially announce on the company’s 100th birthday this past Tuesday – not to mention release the testosterone-dripping video that can be seen at the bottom of this column – that it will begin production of and start selling the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hemi Hellcat sometime later this year?

Big deal, just a new and improved model of the Challenger, right?

Wrong. The new supercharged Hemi Hellcat Challenger is set to become the most powerful muscle car ever made, sporting a massive 707 horsepower motor under its hood.

For all you gearheads and wrench jockeys, I’ll repeat that: 707 mean and ornery horses under the hood.

Oh yes, and did we mention that the speedometer on the Hemi Hellcat Challenger might potentially reach as high as 200 mph, if the above illustration from one of Dodge’s websites (DriveSRT.com) is accurate?

That’s more raw power and potential high-end speed than the 700-hp Lamborghini Aventador, the 663-hp Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, the 650-hp Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the 580-hp Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 or the 505-hp Camaro Z28. It even makes the once 640-hp speed king Dodge Viper look like it’s an underpowered 40-year-old Chevy Vega or Ford Maverick.

In fact, the Hemi Hellcat is only about 140 or so horsepower shy of the kind of power churned out by a NASCAR Sprint Cup car on racetracks from Daytona to Fontana, and only about 50 horsepower less than motors that power Nationwide Series cars.

That kind of horsepower isn’t just fast, it’s – sorry, Kevin Harvick, we couldn’t avoid it – freaky F-A-S-T.

On Wednesday, more news from the Dodge camp came out when MotorAuthority.com posted a story and spy photos of the new 2015 Dodge Charger SRT – which also will likely carry the 707-hp Hemi Hellcat motor.

The point we’re making here is simple: why would Dodge go to all the trouble and multi-million dollars of expense in development and production costs of making the bat-out-of-hell-fast Challenger and Charger unless the company had some serious marketing plans for the future?

Like bringing both models to NASCAR.

Think about it: Ford redesigned the Mustang and Chevy brought back the Camaro, and where did they wind up at?

In the Nationwide Series, up against the outdated Camry.

And what have the Mustang and Camaro been for Ford and Chevy dealers?

Sales magnets, thanks in part to being raced in NASCAR competition, albeit in the NNS junior league than the major league Sprint Cup circuit. (And if the Challenger or Charger do return to NASCAR, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mustang and Camaro potentially move up to Sprint Cup as well.)

Even with gas around $4-plus per gallon, U.S. drivers still want as much raw speed and power as they can buy. That’s why the Camaro and Mustang are among the most popular American-made muscle cars on the market today.

Dodge would be foolish not to come back to NASCAR to tout its new cars.

Where else could the manufacturer race (and sell) these types of potent pony cars?

The Challenger and Charger wouldn’t fit in Formula One, IndyCar or sprint cars (unless you took off the top and the fenders to make them “open-wheelers,” which isn’t likely to happen).

Sure, the Challenger and Charger might work in sports car and road course racing, but NASCAR is a built-in market with all the infrastructure necessary to make the Challenger and Charger not only welcome, but successful almost right out of the box.

We can easily see the Challenger join the Nationwide Series ranks, perhaps as early as 2016. And we can also see the Charger return to the Sprint Cup fold maybe by 2017, if not 2016 as well.

Again, we can’t say it enough: that’s strictly speculation on our part. Dodge hasn’t said a word about what may just as easily wind up only being a dream that will never come true.

But if Dodge truly does have well-kept secret designs of returning to NASCAR, it had better start working pretty soon on a production program for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, which typically takes 12 to 18 months to develop and build (much like when Ray Evernham led Dodge’s return to NASCAR, joining the company in 1999 before the first Intrepid hit the racetrack in 2001, succeeded by the Charger in 2006).

Here’s another thing to consider: It’s believed that Richard Petty Motorsports has one more year remaining on its current deal with Ford (reportedly through 2015).

According to a Motorsport.com report in early May, team owner Richard Petty reportedly has already met with officials of Ford (to potentially extend RPM’s current deal), as well as Toyota (about potentially leaving Ford when RPM’s current deal is up).

“We’ve got to look at our team and look at our circumstances,” Petty said less than two months ago when asked what RPM’s future plans are.  “We’ve got to look and say, ‘Okay, what’s going to be the best for us right now, what’s going to the best for us two years down the road, what’s going to be the best for us five years down the road?’”

Petty added: “We’re out looking and seeing what all the factories have got laid out for their future to see if we can fit into any of that.”

But what if Petty were to be the magnet to bring Dodge back to NASCAR, particularly with his long and legendary history with the company and the Hemi during his own racing career from the late 1950s to early 1990s?

It makes sense.

Heck, it more than makes sense, it’s a no-brainer.

And if Petty were to lead the charge and return to the Dodge fold, there’s likely at least two or three other smaller teams that could be viewed as prospective candidates that might be convinced to switch from their current powerplants and chassis — especially if Dodge offers significant incentives.

Among those that come to mind as potential targets for Dodge: Furniture Row Racing, Front Row Motorsports, JTG Daugherty, maybe even a team like Michael Waltrip Racing. Even Richard Childress Racing was rumored to be interested in Dodge, according to a FoxSports.com report back in late January (Childress denied the rumor)

And what about Andretti Autosport, which has reportedly expressed interest in expanding its IndyCar base (it has also branched out into sports cars and rally cars, even Formula E racing) into NASCAR?

Think about the publicity and attention bonanza that would result if two of the biggest and most legendary surnames in motorsports history — Petty and Andretti — were to align under the Dodge umbrella.

Again, we can’t repeat this enough: Dodge has not said anything about coming back to NASCAR. We’re only speculating here.

But if you add two-plus-two, believe in conspiracy theories, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and think you’re good at connecting dots, if you were some of the top honchos at Dodge, wouldn’t you want to use NASCAR as a huge showcase for your technology with the upcoming high performance Challenger and Charger?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.