(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

 

Karam: “A tricky qualifying run for the Gas Monkey Energy car”

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his third entry, after qualifying and a crazy Monday practice session. You can read his first and second blogs here.  He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Hi there, Sage Karam checking in again from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Monday, and we put our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet back into race trim after two days of qualifying for the 100th Indy 500. It was wild out there today! You saw some crazy action out there after qualifying.

But as I mentioned in the lead up to qualifying, the past week’s practice sessions saw a multitude of weather changes from cool to hot, from windy to not. All the time, my Dreyer & Reinbold–Kingdom Racing team did a super job making all of the adjustments for race conditions.

We then put the race car into qualifying trim; you take off the downforce you needed versus when you were running around other cars on track. In qualifying, it’s a four-lap sprint by yourself, and you attempt to get the maximum speed possible.

On Saturday, the first day of qualifications, I think the track really changed from the rest of the week, and I think it threw a lot of guys off, me especially. The car balance did a complete 180 on us. We were loose Friday, as the rear end of the car wants to come around on you.

But, on Saturday, we had a lot of understeer, so it kind of caught us off guard in the morning. We went back to the garage before qualifying and did some changes as we were not really sure what we had, and it was just kind of a gamble.

I mean I was flat (on the throttle), and I told myself I was going to go flat. I put my left foot over my right foot and that was it. I worked with my tools in the car (weight jacker, etc.) and I went flat three laps. On the fourth lap, the car started understeering again and I had to crack the throttle about five to ten percent going into turn one. So, there’s more left in the car. We’re low on downforce then, just because we didn’t know what we were going to have.

I knew the car had a lot more speed left in it, and I knew I have a great team with DRR-Kingdom Racing and Gas Monkey Energy on board. So we went back to the garage and we look at the computer charts and numbers. I thought there was at least another mile an hour left in the car, just in downforce. We were looking to come in to Sunday be in the 229-mile average range. I thought we could be at 228 or 229 for Sunday’s final qualifying runs.

On Sunday, I was not pleased with our qualifying attempt. We just had too much downforce in the car. The track temperature kept climbing throughout the afternoon. So the team wanted to keep a little more downforce in the car to handle the hotter track.

But some clouds came over the Speedway right before our qualifying attempt. The cloud cover definitely cooled off the track surface and we just didn’t need that much downforce. The car was good Saturday that I thought we had a shot at tenth, which is the best you can get if you miss the top nine on the first day.

The track was changing every time you go out there. We thought we needed more downforce with the hotter track temperatures, and the temps went down 10 degrees with the clouds. I wish we could have taken the wedges out of the car and put in some of the speed ramps for straightaway speed. The weather was constantly changing and it just caught us out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

All this week, the Gas Monkey Energy crew have been outstanding on race setups, and I feel confident going into next Sunday. Fortunately, it’s not all about qualifying. It’s about next Sunday. It would have made my job easier for the race if we could have qualified a bit better than 23rd.

But it’s been nine months for me since my last race. It’s an incredible feeling to be back here at Indy. Anytime you are turning laps here, it’s still a magical feeling. I can’t wait to get back into Turn 1 with 32 other cars, and make 200 laps again.

This Friday will be our final one-hour practice before Sunday’s 100th Indy 500. It’s Carb Day, and it’s a fun event for the fans too. In addition, we will be in the Pit Stop Challenge on Friday afternoon. The last time I was with the DRR-Kingdom team, we finished second overall to Scott Dixon. Our crew is a fast one with the four-tire change and fuel. I feel we have a chance to win the Challenge this Friday.

Thanks for reading and we’ll have another blog before race day. Lots of media interviews and promotions are ahead the next few days, including having the Gas Monkey (on my shirt) meet up with animals at the Cincinnati Zoo on Tuesday.



Pippa Mann on Monday’s practice: “Like Carb Day on steroids”

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INDIANAPOLIS – A strong day at the office for Pippa Mann in her No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda saw her end fifth on the speed charts, top Honda on the day, with 116 laps completed (second on the field only behind Simon Pagenaud and Max Chilton, who both ran 117 laps) and feeling much more confident about her Dale Coyne Racing car in race trim ahead of Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

While she acknowledged her best lap came courtesy of a tow – most of the quick ones did – it was still a relief to know her repaired chassis was back and good to go after the team found some additional niggling issues before her qualifying attempt on Sunday.

“It was not fun not being able to warm up, and go straight to your qualifying run,” she admitted during today’s post-practice press conference. “But I’m so grateful to the Dale Coyne Racing crew for giving me such a great car.

“I was very happy to be back in race trim today. We still have some work to do. Most of the people here caught a big tow – I’m no exception – but I hope we have a top-20, top-15 race car. People were better than me today, but there were people I was better than too.”

Mann was no exception to the frantic craziness that made up the session, in significant group running during the day that saw a grand total of 2,886 laps turned.

“It was Carb Day Mark 2.0… or potentially Carb Day on steroids,” she said. “We did that for four hours. It got a bit hairy a few times. No one wants to tear up a race car this close to race day for sure.

“But the good thing is that’s representative of what it will be like in the race. In the race when we have that many cars in a groove, you’re not gonna be able to run fast times,” she explained. “You use all the gears, occasionally the brakes – and yes it sounds weird at this place. You’re reacting after everyone.”

On Saturday, Mann and the No. 63 team faced adversity when a rear wing end fence failed, which pitched her into a spin for her initial qualifying attempt off Turn 2.

That being said, Mann did a rather good job to keep the car largely intact on corner exit, save for slight front wing and left front tire and upright damage – it could have been much, much worse.

The Saturday blip interrupted an otherwise productive week of practice not just for her, but the entire Coyne team. Mann – who’s better at setup and feedback than most probably realize – was keen to note the improvements she’s felt coming into her fifth Indianapolis 500, both from a team and from a Honda standpoint.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

“The really big thing is after Indy last year I worked with Rob Ridgely, who was the engineer on (No.) 18 last year,” she said. “When I was talking to Dale about coming back and him going to four cars, he said, ‘We’ll bring “Ridge” back,’ and that made me smile.

“We got on really well, and it creates that continuity. All the races I’ve done after I’ve been missing, it’s often new people to learn and to work with. To have that continuity is fantastic, and I think it’s really shown.

“What’s really interesting for me is that my last reference point is coming off Pocono,” she added about Honda’s development.

“Honda has worked really hard this winter. To drive it again after last year, both of the actual platform – even though they haven’t changed it much – the (operating) window is better and bigger. In engine department, they’ve worked hard. We’re pleased with they’ve shown up with so far.”

Mann said her car appears to work better in cooler conditions than hotter ones – today saw ambient and track temperatures peak at 82 ambient and 122 track, per Firestone, at 3:30 p.m.

If it’s cooler, that may help her on Sunday, as she’ll start 25th.

“I can’t speak for Josef (Newgarden) but our car with a little bit of cloud cover, we’ve been very, very good,” said the driver who’s also doing the #GetInvolved campaign fundraiser.

“Better than today actually. We were OK. When the track temp came down we were looking quite good, and I’d move our target then from top-15 to 20, to maybe top-15 to low top-10 car? It makes quite a big difference.”

Newgarden leads frenetic, crazy Monday practice at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday is race day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but today may as well have been a warm-up act following one of the craziest days of practice in recent memory.

Josef Newgarden led the day’s running in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet at 227.414, ahead of three other Chevrolets – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Sage Karam.

“I think today is the most representative day that we’re going to get going into Sunday, which was great,” Newgarden said in the post-practice press conferences. “Everyone was in a pack together, which was great, because that’s what we need to see. Everyone needed to see what’s going to happen in a pack.

“To me, some guys looked good at certain points, and then they looked really bad at other points. I think that’s how it’s going to be on race day. You’re going to be good at one point. You’re going to be bad at the other. It’s about making your race more good than bad. You need to minimize the bad stints and maximize the good stints. I think that’s going to be the game.”

In fifth place, Pippa Mann turned her first practice laps since her qualifying attempt in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda and was the top Honda at 225.833 mph.

Jack Hawksworth had a fire out the back of his No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda, and it was the third mechanical issue of the month for Honda.

In another Foyt car, Alex Tagliani made it out in a “Franken car,” either Hawksworth or Takuma Sato’s backup car, following his accident in qualifying.

Forgetting the times, in the 2,886 laps completed, it was just an insane amount of action with trains, passing, repassing and near-misses.

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Hinchcliffe’s recovery and pole is an incredible kickoff to Indy 500 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Today marks the final full day of practice for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. This practice day last year (then May 18), James Hinchcliffe suffered a near-death accident when going through Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

You know the story by now. The suspension piece pierced his upper thigh, he lost a lot of blood, and he was saved by both the Holmatro Safety Team and later, the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital team.

It was a miracle Hinchcliffe even recovered but the fact he didn’t just recover – quicker than he anticipated – but is almost stronger after the fact is pretty dang cool.

He was back in a car in September for a test at Road America to kick off his testing process through the offseason. In the opening five races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hinchcliffe has now banked three straight top-10 finishes, including his first podium since his return with third place in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Now, the drama has ratcheted up another level with Hinchcliffe first ending fastest in the first day of qualifying on Saturday, and then scoring the pole position on Sunday as the final driver in the Fast Nine Shootout to run.

“I get it (about the accident). It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too,” Hinchcliffe said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There was a lot of really, really nice pieces done, a lot of nice tributes done in that sense. But no, then you’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs.

“So there was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about? Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there.’ But we’ll see.

“Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”

One of those aforementioned “really nice pieces” referenced is that earlier this year, NBCSN shot this piece of Hinchcliffe’s accident and his recovery before he got back in his first race of the season at St. Petersburg.

Produced by Taylor Rollins, it premiered during our first show of the year, the pre-show for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

You can see it above, as preparations intensify for the biggest race of the IndyCar season.