I’ve been around NASCAR for a long time. The first race I covered as a credentialed media member was won by Ricky Rudd and featured cars sponsored by Camel cigarettes, Skoal Bandit and Kodiak, QVC and the Cartoon Network.
I said all that to say this: after 20 years in the garage, very few things surprise me. The announcement last week that Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) will be switching from Chevrolet to Ford for 2017 was shocking.
Like seriously shocking.
Like when I first saw it, I thought it was a joke. Then NASCAR fans lost their minds.
Probably more shocking than the actual switch is that SHR and Ford worked on it for awhile and were able to keep it a secret.
Part of the reason that Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs racing before the 2009 season was that Gibbs had left Chevrolet for Toyota. Then, Stewart was an unabashed Chevy man. It was tied to a deal that he had with the manufacturer at the dirt track he owns, Eldora Speedway. Other than the year he spent driving the Gibbs Toyota, Stewart has spent his entire career in General Motors products (1999 to 2002 in Pontiacs).
It was also surprising because SHR has enjoyed such a close working relationship with Hendrick Motor Sports, getting chassis and engines from the 11-time Sprint Cup championship team. The partnership has paid off for SHR with two championships.
But according to Stewart, part of the move stems from a desire to step out of Hendrick’s shadow.
“We see this as a lot of growth for Stewart-Haas Racing,” Stewart said. “It’s not just changing OEMs, it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of get out of the shadows and, to some degree, get off the coattails, to a certain degree, and really get out on our own and I think that’s something everybody here at SHR is really excited about and proud that we’re finally in a position to do this and branch out in this way.”
It’s worth noting that 2016 will be Stewart’s last year behind the wheel. He is retiring at season’s end. In fact, he is yet to start his season because of a back injury sustained in a non-racing dune buggy accident, and, as we all know, a dune buggy is not a vehicle, but a way of life. Clint Bowyer will be slipping into the seat of the No. 14 Ford next year.
So other than some new decals on the cars, what does this all mean?
Well for starters, it shows a renewed commitment to NASCAR, and winning in NASCAR, for Ford Motor Company. I’m sure convincing co-owners Stewart and Gene Haas — who incidentally is going Formula1 racing next, and that junk is expensive — cost FoMoCo a good bit of coin. Ford has not won a Cup championship since 2004 with Kurt Busch, who coincidentally now drives for SHR.
“We have said very clearly that we are not in NASCAR just to race, but to win races and championships,” said Dave Pericak, global director, Ford Performance. “We believe the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017 will give our program a major boost in terms of being in contention for both drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships every year.”
Second, it means business is picking up at Roush Yates Engines, the company that supplies power plants for Ford’s NASCAR fleet. For the company, adding SHR to the fold means an additional 60 engines a year.
“For us, that’s four more top-notch cars, opportunities to win races and championships,” Roush Yates CEO Doug Yates said last Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “But the work starts now because we’ve got to get ready for next year.”
The move does bring a few things into question. First and foremost being, how does this affect Ford’s other teams. For years, Roush Fenway Racing was the top of Ford’s pecking order (and I hate this term. Is there a chart with teams listed and they move up and down?).
That was disrupted when Penske switched back to Ford for the 2013 season and outpaced Jack’s teams. It’s unlikely that either of them will be going anywhere. Same goes for the Wood Brothers, who have been running Fords since Henry was still running the company. Besides, their wagon is firmly hitched to Penske. But that leaves Richard Petty Motorsports and Front Row Racing. Petty hasn’t been with Ford too long and has a history with General Motors. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Chevrolet go after them. Front Row is the vestiges of Robert Yates teams. They go back a long way with Ford, but if they get offered a good deal, they could join the bowtie brigade.
But the major ramifications may come from within the SHR organization. Bowyer, Busch or Danica Patrick will have an issue with the move to Ford. But the same may not be true for Kevin Harvick. I mean the guy used to drive the Chevrolet Chevy. For his part, Harvick is saying he is committed to SHR. However, he was a bit coy about his contract status after this season. If he surveys the landscape, he may not find a better option than staying put where he is.
But as I’ve learned over the past week: stranger things have happened.
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