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Dodge says goodbye to NASCAR _ at least for now

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HOMESTEAD, FLA. (AP) - Dodge is preparing to say goodbye to NASCAR.

And if everything goes as expected Sunday, it will be one heck of a going-away party.

Dodge driver Brad Keselowski entered the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 20-point lead over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Penske Racing's rising star has to finish 15th or better to clinch his first championship _ which also would be the first for longtime NASCAR owner Roger Penske. Keselowski has finished 11th or better in the last 11 races, so barring an accident or a catastrophic failure, Keselowski will end the day hoisting a trophy in Victory Lane.

And no one wants it more than Dodge.

"It's weird. It's bittersweet. It's exciting. It's amazing," said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Dodge's SRT Brand and Motorsports. "The feeling is amazing. It's kind of our mantra: If we're going to be in it, we're going to be in it to win it."

Dodge is seeking its first Cup championship since Richard Petty's title in 1975.

This one would be more surprising and maybe more meaningful since Dodge announced in August it would withdraw from NASCAR competition 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 Sunday. "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."

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 has done in 2012 _ with or without a championship _ no one will question whether the two-car team will be able to compete with larger organizations.

Gilles recalled hearing questions about that before the season.

"Everyone looked at us a bit sideways like, `Huh, your two cars are going to go against the Goliaths?'" he said. "We didn't listen to the noise. We had one very experienced driver and we had this one up and comer. Our data said he was fast; our data said he was focused. Of course, he was a little erratic in the beginning. ... But he's come a long way. He's come a long way faster than I ever thought he would. I have nothing but respect for Brad."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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