Ford Takes First Steps Toward Cup Rebirth At Daytona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 27 2017

The Ford Fusion of Kurt Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing drove all the way to Victory Lane at Daytona on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Tom Copeland)

Ford Motor Co. executives readily admit their desire this season is to seize the manufacturer’s championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, a title they have not possessed since 2002.

Chevrolet dominated the competition for 13 years before Toyota dethroned the General Motors brand last year. Now Ford hungers to be the king of the manufacturers in stock car racing’s premier series and its plan appears headed in the right direction. Joey Logano fired the first shot during Daytona’s Speedweeks, securing a victory in the Advance Auto Parts Clash. Kurt Busch wrapped up Speedweeks with not only his first Daytona 500 victory, but also the inaugural one for Stewart-Haas Racing, an organization that Ford spent millions of dollars to woo from Chevrolet.

“We are in the best position we’ve been in, in probably a decade with the number of cars that we have, with the quality of drivers that we have and with the engineering staff that’s supporting the teams,” said Dave Pericak, Ford Performance’s global director.

With Stewart-Haas Racing’s move to the Ford camp, the blue oval now has 14 cars in NASCAR’s top series. That’s despite Richard Petty Motorsports going from two to one team this year and Roush Fenway reducing its entries in the Cup Series from three to two. Pericak said the downsizing of those organizations was a way for Ford to refocus the teams and return them to the correct path.

“You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in the areas that you need to focus and fix what’s broken,” Pericak continued. “Our job is to get in there and help them get back to where we know they can be. We’ve had some bumpy roads, but I think we now are on a path to improve their performance.”

Pericak’s remarks proved accurate during Speedweeks. Aric Almirola led once for two laps in his RPM Ford before recording a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500. Roush Fenway’s Trevor Bayne never led, but he produced a 10th-place finish, his first top 10 in the Daytona 500 since he won the race in 2011.

Seven of the 18 leaders in the Daytona 500 drove Fords and together they led 76 of the 200 laps. Three of the top-five finishers and six of the top-10 drove Fords. The Daytona 500 victory was Ford’s fifth in the last nine years and its 15th overall.

Ford also claimed victory in NASCAR’s season opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona with Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Reed. The only victory lanes denied Ford were the Can-Am Duel 150s, with Chevrolet taking one and Toyota the other, and the Camping World Truck Series season opener, which went to Chevrolet.

Ford executives realize success must be cultivated in the lower series and with young drivers that can be promoted within the ranks. In other words, formulating a depth chart much like one finds in football. That’s where Ford’s driver development program comes in, but it’s much different from the ones currently in place by its peers. With Ford, the drivers are under contract to the manufacturer, not the teams.

“That gives us the opportunity as they progress through the levels to give them the best ride and the best opportunity and figure out where it fits best within the Ford camp,” Pericak said. “Ultimately, they will go to the Cup level, if they’re good enough, and they will then sign with one of the teams and they will remove their signing with Ford Motor Co.”

Chase Briscoe, who’s driving for Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR truck team, was the first competitor Ford signed to its driver development program.

“We are not only going to develop drivers in NASCAR, we are also going to leverage that driver for our production car development,” Pericak said. “While he’s doing that he also is learning how to work with engineers and how to give good feedback on cars. So there is a really good education that’s going to happen.”

Team owner Tony Stewart’s primary concern about the program is whether there will be enough seats available for those drivers when it’s time.

“You start bringing all of these drivers in and you get their expectations up that they’re all going to get to the Cup level,” Stewart said. “They quit good opportunities and good rides and then they get up here and then there’s nothing for them because there are no seats available. I think that’s something we have to be careful of. It’s a delicate deal.”  

A true complexion of this year’s season won’t be obtained until after the next five races due to the variety of tracks on the schedule. That’s because restrictor-plate tracks often provide a skewed view of the competition. One thing is for sure, however, NASCAR probably will see the most intense competition among the manufacturers this season that it has experienced since the late 1960s and early 1970s.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 27 2017
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