What Happened to First On Race Day?
Ford has a long and successful history in NASCAR. They have 15 manufacturer series championships, second only to Chevrolet's 36 titles. They've been associated with some of the biggest icons in NASCAR history, including David Pearson, Bill Elliott, and Alan Kulwicki. In modern terms, they've been a part of Roush (and later Roush-Fenway) Racing for decades and have powered drivers such as Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch to series championships.
Yet Another Former Ford Champion
Toyota convert Matt Kenseth
Yet lately the blue oval group has been a far cry from “First On Race Day”. The numbers from 2013 alone paint a harsh picture of a manufacturer running far below its peers. While Shevy and Toyota have a combined 17 wins, Ford has managed only three. Only two of the top 12 in points (Carl Edwards, 3rd and Greg Biffle, 10th) carry the Ford banner and only defending series champion Brad Keselowski has a realistic chance to join them after Richmond. And it's not as if the Ford teams have lost races on luck alone. Jimmie Johnson, with almost 1100 laps led, is almost double the combined total of Edwards, Keselowski, Biffle, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Marcos Ambrose (total: 575).
Perhaps the most damning evidence of Ford's decline is the rapid ascent of Matt Kenseth among the sport's elite. He has won four races, been in contention elsewhere with 11 Top Ten finishes, and if not for TRD's engine woes would likely be atop the Sprint Cup series standings. The 2003 championship winner didn't suddenly re-discover his driving talent during the off-season. So the immediate and incredible improvement has to come from the equipment he's driving. Kenseth clearly knew what he was doing when he elected to take what many saw as a lateral move during the off-season.
Video Game or Real Life?
Ford Owner Jack Roush
One benefit that has aided Kenseth is sponsor stability. During his last year with Roush-Fenway, Kenseth carried a variety of sponsors on his side-boards. Trying to keep straight who he was supposed to thank post-race and not having a long-term commitment from anyone clearly left him unsettled.
That unsettled sponsorship situation is something that has plagued Roush-Fenway for several years. Despite finishing a close second to Tony Stewart in 2011, Carl Edwards has carried multiple sponsors on his car. Kenseth, a former series champion who was still competitive, had unsponsored races and saw long time partner Dewalt leave for a lesser team in Richard Petty Motorsports. Roush's iconic #6, driven by Mark Martin to numerous wins, sits unused due to a lack of sponsorship.
While certainly the economic meltdown four years ago hurt virtually all teams, no one has had the trouble Roush-Fenway has had in terms of finding sponsors. One can only speculate why RFR has had so much trouble attracting and retaining sponsors. Are the asking prices too high? Do they not provide the same return on investment that other teams provide? Is it something personal in dealing with RFR executives? Whatever the cause, the lack of funds and continuity is severely damaging Ford's premier NASCAR race team.
Ford Has Done Well At Daytona
The demise of Robert Yates Racing has also put a major dent into the Ford camp. Yates won 58 races as a car owner and one series championship (Dale Jarrett, 1999). The value of having a second major team running your equipment cannot be overstated as the separate organizations both competed with and, on occasion, shared information with their Ford counterparts. After Dale Jarrett (and the UPS sponsorship) left, the organization was never the same and eventually folded, its assets now a part of Richard Petty Motorsports. While the Yates engine shop continues to build powerplants for virtually all of the Ford cars, their once-vaunted horsepower is now a thing of the past.
That power was once the calling card for Ford teams in general and Yates in particular, but those engines are no longer leading the pack. The three wins by Ford this year came at Phoenix, Talladega and Michigan. The first two are rarely won by horsepower and the third saw several contenders eliminated earlier in the race and no other Fords finish in the top seven. 2012 showed a similar story with only six wins over 36 weeks, including wins at Daytona, Talladega and Watkins Glen that didn't come based on the power under the hood. Did Ford decide that engine survivability was more important than horsepower? Have the other manufacturers figured out some key engine-building process that has, of yet, eluded the Ford teams? Or is it simply a matter of the Hendrick and TRD groups having more resources to throw at the problem?
Hendrick Engine Dominance
Tony Stewart, Hendrick Teammate?
It's hard to think that it's simply a manufacturing process or secret making all of the difference. As Brad Keselowski “educated” all of us earlier this year, there are plenty of office and shop employees that change teams during the off-season. If there was a silver bullet hiding in Chevrolet's garage, it's safe to assume that the secret would've gotten out at this point. There's too much money and too much prestige on the line to not explore what your competitors are doing and you can bet a resume that includes “Hendrick Engine Shop Builder” will make its way to the top of the stack at the Ford HR office.
Resources, however, certainly can make a difference. Ideas are important. But having the resources to test out those ideas on a computer model, then to build and test the physical version, then have up to a dozen teams to try it out on the track... that's a difference. Hendrick has a huge advantage in this department. Not only do they have their own four teams (while JGR, RCR, and RFR all currently have three), they also have a host of teams who purchase their equipment and share some technical information. And while some of those teams aren't competitive, they may be willing to try out a test engine on the track for the right financial consideration. Not to mention the fact that Stewart-Haas racing, one of those buyers, has driving talent and financial resources of its own.
Penske Pair to the Rescue?
Ford also seems to have become a victim of a highly insular environment. The engines are all made at Yates. The chassis mainly come from Roush. There has been very little change within the Ford atmosphere in some time and as a result, little new innovation. So the first needed change is one that already took place this past off-season in adding Penske Racing to the stable. Ford seems to recognize the need to change as well, having “encouraged” the teams to do a better job in terms of sharing information gained in the engineering room.
If Ford is going to make a real comeback to NASCAR prominence, continued changes are going to need to be made. They need to continue to “encourage” their teams to broaden their information sharing beyond simply what's been learned in building their cars. Sharing setups, track lines, tuning etc. is a key next step. Protecting “confidential information” is all well and good but frankly none of these teams is doing well enough right now that their 'secrets' are worth the organization as a whole. No one team has managed to put it all together. But it's possible that they individually have all of the right pieces.
The only way to find out is to open the doors and put all of their cards on the table. Sure, some teams and drivers will gain more than others in this arrangement; it's unlikely that the #99 team is going to learn as much as, say, the #43 will. But it may very well be a small, almost insignificant item to that #43 team that can push Carl Edwards from top ten to race contender.
The Last Ford Champion
Moreover, the value of overall organizational success cannot be overstated. Success for the lower-tier teams leads to more sponsorship dollars, which leads to more opportunity to experiment and gain additional information. More information leads to technical advances for all of the teams and those technical advances can provide the one thing the Ford teams lack most; speed. They aren't going to be able to hire better drivers; Kenseth's success shows just how far behind Ford is and will discourage any big-name free agents from joining the group. They aren't going to have a new car to level the playing field; that happened in 2013 and only leveled it between Toyota and Chevrolet. The sharing will be painful, especially to the pieces in the Ford camp that have been in control for decades. But unless it happens it will be another decade before Ford has the chance to win another title.