Second-half math will get tough for Chrysler

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DETROIT -- On July 17, 1941, one of the most impressive streaks in baseball history ended when New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio went hitless before a record crowd in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. DiMaggio had at least one hit in the 56 previous games.

Such is the fate of all streaks, whether they involve sports or anything else: Ultimately, they end. When they do, hindsight allows most of us to gaze back and marvel at the accomplishment, while others are drawn to the finality that the end of any string delivers.

Chrysler Group has been ripping through the monthly sales reports for more than two years, ticking off 27 consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases. What's more remarkable is that in only two of those months -- July and August of 2010 -- were Chrysler's year-over-year increases in the single digits.

In short, Chrysler has been tearing through U.S. sales like Joltin' Joe tore through opposing pitchers in 1941. But Chrysler's next half-dozen trips to the monthly sales plate are likely to be more daunting than the nine Cleveland Indians arrayed that day to stop the Yankee Clipper.

Over the last 27 months, Chrysler has used a combination of much-improved product, more subprime lending, better marketing and Japanese competition brought low by 2011's devastating earthquake and tsunami to lure consumers back to its showrooms.

But the Japanese are back at full strength and other automakers are plotting to grab back their lost market share. Several of Chrysler's factories are running at or near capacity now, with summer shutdowns at a few key plants canceled already. Plus, the 2013 Dodge Dart and Ram 1500 are Chrysler's only high-volume launches scheduled for this year.

Don't get me wrong: Chrysler's vehicle lineup and build quality are night-and-day better than they were when the sales streak began, and consumers have noticed. Unlike earlier eras, Chrysler's current sales streak doesn't appear to be bought with outrageous incentives that made many vehicles into money-losing machines.

But Chrysler and its dealers will have to execute flawlessly to have any hope of maintaining the 30 percent sales increase they had during the first half of 2012 through the rest of the year.

One of these months, Chrysler's year-over-year sales streak is bound to end -- maybe this year, maybe in 2013 or even 2014. Just like the tens of thousands of extra fans who crowded Yankee Stadium and other ballparks to watch a small piece of hitting history 71 years ago, I will marvel in hindsight at Chrysler's remarkable resurrection run when it does.

But Mopar fans shouldn't fret when the inevitable day comes, for while DiMaggio's streak ended, it was really more of an interruption for one of the greatest hitters in the game. Immediately after going hitless that day against the Indians, the slugger started another 16-game hitting streak.

You see, once instilled, confidence is something that's always reliable.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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