Updated at: 11/18/2012 9:05 PM
By MARK LONG
(AP) HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Dodge said goodbye to NASCAR on Sunday.
And got the ultimate parting gift.
Dodge driver Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, giving longtime NASCAR owner Roger Penske his first series title and setting off a wild celebration in Victory Lane that surely will carry long into the night.
Penske Racing’s rising star finished 15th in the season finale, but he clinched the title when his closest contender, Jimmie Johnson, had a catastrophic gear issue with 43 laps remaining.
So instead of getting one victory lap, Keselowski got about 40.
And no one enjoyed it more than Dodge.
"An amazing accomplishment for everyone for sure," said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Dodge’s SRT Brand and Motorsports. "Obviously this project wasn’t one that started yesterday. This has been an 11-year run with a lot of talented people who spend countless hours to make this championship possible. That’s the Dodge way. It’s always been the Dodge way.
"The underdogs came up and did it today. Three years ago, people were looking at us sideways when put this deal together. Everybody grew from it. From Brad to Penske to Dodge. To go out on top it makes it all worthwhile."
It was Dodge’s first Cup championship since Richard Petty won in 1975.
This one was more surprising and maybe more meaningful since Dodge announced in August it was withdrawing from NASCAR after this season. The decision came in part because Penske announced days after the season-opening Daytona 500 it was moving to Ford in 2013.
"I’m literally conflicted because it wasn’t about winning or losing whether we would stay in or not," Gilles said. "Those decisions were made many months ago for other reasons, but this is the best thing that could happen. The best way to look back on this is a feather in our cap. Whether (Keselowski) wins or not tonight, whether he clinches it, it’s still an amazing accomplishment.
"This is a Seabiscuit situation in a way."
It sure seemed that way when Keselowski did smoky burnouts after the race, hoisted the trophy in Victory Lane and then started rounds and round of interviews while getting "a little buzzed" on Miller Lite, his sponsor.
Dodge hasn’t ruled out returning to NASCAR, possibly in the second-tier Nationwide Series or maybe even in the Cup Series.
There has been speculation that Richard Childress Racing might be in the market for another engine builder. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing decided to lease motors from Hendrick Motorsports starting next season. The move was surprising considering Earnhardt-Childress Racing was formed as a joint engine-building effort between Earnhardt Ganassi and Richard Childress.
"I’m not ignorant to that," Gilles said. "I’m going to watch every race next year. I’m very interested in what’s going on in NASCAR."
But if Dodge does decide to rejoin NASCAR, Gilles said it would have to be a situation similar to what the company had with Penske.
"It’s very difficult to replicate the Penske situation," Gilles said. "What a team! Nothing but respect for Roger’s professionalism, his attention to detail. I think he’s brought a formula to the sport that others are probably going to have to start emulating because he’s really done a lot with very little. Of course, he’s got great resources, but it’s laser focus."
Penske will begin a five-year deal with Ford in 2013, with Keselowski and Joey Logano driving for the two-car team.
Given what Penske did in 2012 _ especially with the championship _ no one will question whether the two-car team will be able to compete with larger organizations.
"It’s not how much you put into a race team," Penske said. `It’s about the people."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)