On Sunday morning, I stood in the pre-dawn darkness of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway's Neon Garage. I was there so early that security had to let me in, sleep deprived and bleary-eyed.
So when I stumbled upon Dodge's brand-spanking-new 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup car sitting in Victory Lane, a full four hours before it was to be unveiled to the public, my brain, soaked in cheap, gas station coffee, at first assumed it was some sort of desert mirage. It wasn't.
"That is one damn, fine-looking race car," the security guard said to me with a slap to the shoulder. "You're the expert. Who's going to drive it next year?"
Honestly, I had no answer. Neither did the Dodge PR reps already snapping photos of the beautiful red Charger. And neither did Ralph Gilles, the Dodge Motorsports president himself, at the unveiling later that morning.
Less than two weeks earlier, Penske Racing announced it would be bolting at season's end, headed for the blue oval camp of Ford. That will leave Dodge, just a little more than a decade into its second Cup series stint, without an anchor team.
"With every storm there's a sunny day later," Gilles said when asked about his roster suddenly being down to the one-car, mom-and-pop operation of Robby Gordon Motorsports. "With the way our phone is ringing, I'm not too concerned."
But who is calling? Some say Richard Petty Motorsports. But RPM might be too intertwined with Roush Fenway Racing and Ford, and it's no secret that The King was very bitter about how Dodge treated him when he helped with the team's return back in '01. Others say it could be Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, but do we really think that Teresa Earnhardt will sign off on putting her husband's name on any brand other than Chevy?
Past that, NASCAR's super teams are all tied up. HMS, RFR, RCR, JGR, MWR ... no matter what corner the bowl of alphabet soup, all of those multicar conglomerates are all too locked in with Chevy, Ford and Toyota to make a Dodge dash.
As I thought about it all, I gazed down upon the 2013 Charger and the sunrise suddenly broke over the speedway's third turn. That's when it hit me. A solution that would save Dodge's NASCAR future, could keep its universally loved marketing efforts alive and provide tremendous help to a lot of hardworking racers who so desperately need it.
Dodge shouldn't be taking phone calls. It should be making them, and not to the NASCAR juggernauts.
No, Dodge should be rounding up the little guys. The brand should embrace its thrust-upon-it role as the ultimate motorsports underdog. It should assemble the single-car, cash-strapped teams from the far end of the Cup garage and go racing.
I'm not talking about start-and-parkers. I'm talking about shoestring-budget outfits that are working toward actually building something. I'm talking about teams like Gordon's, such as Tommy Baldwin Racing, Phoenix Racing, JTG Daugherty, Front Row and Furniture Row. The ones that have to buy used parts at auction, fly coach, don't own their own wind tunnels and stay at the Holiday Inn Express because it comes with free breakfast.
Dodge should gather up all of those teams to form a wrench-wielding, grease-under-the-fingernails confederation. A real racers' rebel alliance with the guts to take on a trio of pressed-shirt, data-directed Death Stars.
Dodge should brag about being with the little guys. It should build ad campaigns around them and sell T-shirts with images of Cotton Owens and Charging Charlie Glotzbach alongside its drivers of today. And it should give its new teams something they've never had before -- genuine technical and engineering support.
Think about Chrysler -- Dodge's parent company -- and the amazing, emotional Super Bowl ads it has run over the last two years. Eminem cruising through defiant, resurgent Motor City to the slogan "Imported From Detroit." Or this year's "Halftime in America" speech, when Clint Eastwood growled that the United States "knows how to come from behind to win."
I get a lot of fans who say they are a real car guy and root for us because we look like them in their garage at night working on their car. It's true. At dinnertime we're all on rollbacks saying to the guy next to you, 'Hey dude, hand me a wrench.' And that includes the drivers.
Would there be any greater way for Dodge to support that idea than to become the brand behind race teams that have to employ that mentality every single day? At a time when NASCAR message boards and radio call-in shows are filled with "I've been a NASCAR fan since the 1970s but I can't relate to these guys now," the little teams would give Dodge the perfect avenue for reconnection.
"As great as NASCAR is, I think it's gotten so big that some don't feel that bond with the big teams that maybe they had growing up," team owner Tommy Baldwin explained to me earlier in the month, shortly after driver Dave Blaney nearly pulled off a Cinderella upset in the Daytona 500. "We started in 2009 with six contract employees. Now, we have two cars, but still a small crew. I get a lot of fans who say they are a real car guy and root for us because we look like them in their garage at night working on their car. It's true. At dinnertime we're all on rollbacks saying to the guy next to you, 'Hey dude, hand me a wrench.' And that includes the drivers."
Then Baldwin said something that resonated with me then, will resonate with every short-track racer in America and should resonate with the folks at Dodge headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.:
"We can't go racing with computers and a room full of engineers like the big guys because we can't afford to. So we do it with old-school sweat and elbow grease."
Yes, there would be issues with this approach. None of the smaller teams can afford to build their engines. Dodge, unlike Toyota and Ford, doesn't have one, centralized engine supplier. But when asked about that hurdle, Gilles hinted that there might be a potential solution. Perhaps the combined resources of enough smaller teams would be enough to fund a central engine builder.
No, it isn't going to win much, certainly not in the early going. With this approach, everyone at Dodge would have to be willing to accept the fact that the super teams will still win the majority of the races. But if Chrysler's marketing department was willing to take a different tact, to embrace the underdog role and revel in it -- Real Car Guys in Blue Jeans versus Space Scientists with Pocket Protectors -- then winning won't even matter. If anything, some struggling would play into the theme of grassroots heroes against the billionaire bullies.
But when one of the Dodge rebels finally did win a race? Oh, baby, the ensuing celebration would make it all worth it. Imagine a win like Regan Smith's amazing long-shot triumph at Darlington a year ago. Only this time, the unlikely race-winning team would be joined in Victory Lane by all the other members of Dodge's ragtag, working-stiff syndicate.
They would all feel like they owned a piece of the win and they would ditch the magnums of champagne aside and instead spray cheap beer.
Then, to the applause of fans who can all too painfully relate to daily uphill battles against The Man, the crews would cut the celebration short and trudge back to the garage to get back to work. On the way, they would toss their Victory Lane ball caps into the crowd.
Caps stained with beer, grease, sweat ... and a big ol' Dodge Charger logo embroidered across the front.
It's just crazy enough -- and cool enough -- to work.