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Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang make NASCAR debuts at Daytona

The return of the Dodge Challenger to the race track at Daytona International Speedway was three years in the making, according to the raw calculations of Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of the company that produces the car.

But it’s actually been much longer than that between stints on the Daytona track for the Challenger, which last graced the 2.5-mile superspeedway in the 1980s in what was then known as the Busch Series as well as the Late Model Sportsman series.

“As a car maker, we are happy. For us, it’s the return of Challenger,” Gilles said. “We have been absent almost two decades from racing.”

The return actually occurred Wednesday when five Dodge Challengers were among the 36 “new” Nationwide cars that tested Wednesday at Daytona. But it won’t become official until Friday night when the Challengers — as well as seven Ford Mustangs that will be entirely new to the series — race against each other and all other comers in the Subway Jalapeno 250.

“We haven’t had a lot of time on the track, but so far it’s really cool to drive,” Brad Keselowski said of the Challenger. “We ran a bunch of laps and seem to be really fast.”

Keselowski’s teammate at Penske Racing, Justin Allgaier, was the fastest of those behind the wheel in the new Dodges. His top lap time of 48.280 seconds, which translated to 186.413 mph, ranked 12th overall on the practice speed chart.

“Any time that you can debut a new car, especially one that is as good-looking as the Dodge Challenger, it heightens the whole idea of running well and trying to win that first race [in it],” Allgaier said. “[The Challenger] has a mean and aggressive look to it. One of the biggest complaints when the [new] Cup car came out was how big and boxy they looked. NASCAR has done a great job of going back in and trying to fix some of the things that they didn’t like about the original car.”

For Dodge as well as Ford, the decision to go with a new model as the Nationwide Series shifts to a new, safer chassis was not made lightly. Friday’s race will be the first of four in which the Challenger is run this season, but next season it will replace the Dodge Charger in all Nationwide events. The same goes for the Ford Mustang, which will eventually replace the Ford Fusion in the series.

Gilles and Jamie Allison, who is director of Ford North America Motorsports, said the switches were made in their individual camps with the fervent hope that it will again help race fans engage and identify with the manufacturers of the cars their favorite drivers compete in.

Translation: the hope is that the switch to the new models that are old classics on their company production lines will revive the connection between race performance on the weekend and sales in the showrooms on Monday.

“I hope that’s what happens,” Gilles said. “I’ve said it already: I think the drivers have taken quite a bit of limelight, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They are great personalities — and we are finding that the drivers, they are almost superstars amongst themselves. But it would be nice to get the cars get a little limelight again and then start talking about branding.

“Over the years, the cars have become somewhat of a template, and it’s hard to argue with some of the fans shifting the interest toward the drivers. … But there’s something really cool about being able to identify the car that you may want to drive or your dad may drive or whatever. I think it’s very powerful and it’s what the whole industry was invented for in the first place; [it] was to market vehicles.”

Allgaier said that is added motivation for the driver of the race car as well.

“The cool part for me is that I get to drive a car that the average fan can go down and buy at the dealership,” Allgaier said. “Short of bolting a spoiler and fin on the back window, it pretty much looks very similar to the production Challenger.”

Allison pointed out that beginning this Friday night, perhaps for the first time in a long time, at least some of the cars on the track arguably will be scrutinized as closely as the folks driving them — and not just for their paint schemes. That’s what he wants.

“This is the case where the cars are going to be the stars. We all buy cars,” Allison said. “We all — one from another — tend to affiliate with our cars. I’m a Mustang kind of guy. When I drive a Mustang, or when [I think about when] I bought my first Mustang, there is a deep emotional connection that I have with that car.

“And I think many of the fans feel the same way. When you see a Mustang or Challenger going around Daytona, it’s a different type of connection that you have with it. It’s because either your friends or neighbor or somebody you know has [one of those cars] and you can relate to it versus what has transpired over the years of taking away that brand identity that people could relate to. … At Ford we did a lot of work with the brand team to make sure that the car is recognizable as a Mustang, as is the Challenger recognizable as Challenger.”

Both car executives said they would not rule out someday attempting to bring the models to the Sprint Cup Series, where the Mustang presumably would replace the Fusion again and the Challenger presumably would replace the Charger.

“I think the look of the Challenger is part and parcel with what happens with the Cup Series. It would be up to NASCAR — because that’s another game altogether, to go to the Sunday race. We have to really change the rules there,” Gilles said.

“So part of the experiment here, it’s obviously a public experiment. We have four races this year and an entire season next year. I have always said this to my friends at NASCAR: that eventually the fans will kind of tell us what to do. I think the excitement will be very loud and clear, and then we’ll have to see what happens. But in the meantime, I’m lucky that I have two very nice muscle cars in my portfolio. Now I enjoy two avenues for which to promote them, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Allison said the introduction of the new models that more closely resemble showroom models customers will be able to purchase will be beneficial both to the manufacturers and to NASCAR itself in terms of helping promote popularity of the sport.

“From Mustang’s perspective, Mustang has been involved in all forms of motorsports from land speed records to drag racing to sports car racing and recently in drifting, and now we are adding to it, stock car racing,” Allison said.

“There have been nine million Mustangs sold since 1964, and I consider every one of those a potential fan for watching Mustang make its appearance in Nationwide.”

(NASCAR)