Ford speeding to catch up in NASCAR’s elite series
March 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
No one in Ford Motor Company’s racing operations would have dared to imagine a decade ago that the Sprint Cup championship Kurt Busch won for the Blue Oval in 2004 would be the last for nine years.
Virtually everyone wearing Ford colors today knows that fact all too well.
“If we can help change that stat, that’s certainly what the goal is,” said Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director. “Our expectation is to win the championship.”
Tony Stewart won the title for Chevrolet in 2005, beginning a seven-year run of championships for the General Motors brand – five in a row by Jimmie Johnson before Stewart bookended the stretch with the 2011 title. Brad Keselowski won for Dodge in 2012 in the manufacturer’s swan-song year in the series, and Johnson returned Chevrolet to the head table last year.
Busch, Ford’s last champion, now wears Chevrolet colors at Stewart-Haas Racing. Ford’s stars — drivers such as Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle and, in past years, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray — have been players in the game since Busch’s title, but the magic has been missing.
The early results of this season, however, give Ford a new shine:
–Keselowski has a win for Team Penske, and Edwards won Sunday at Bristol for Roush Fenway Racing, virtually reserving a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for both drivers.
–Ford has three drivers in the top six in points – Keselowski first, Edwards third and Joey Logano sixth.
–Edwards and Team Penske’s Keselowski and Logano are the only drivers who have led laps in all four races to date.
–Team Penske has dominated the season’s new qualifying format, putting both of its drivers on the front row for races at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Keselowski started second at Bristol.
“Their cars have so much speed right now they can do anything they want,” said Toyota driver Denny Hamlin of the Penske operation. “They have a lot of speed, and when you have a car that has speed you have the confidence.”
Back to drawing board
None of this progress happened overnight.
In fact, the Ford contingent showed up in Daytona in early January for preseason testing and was buffeted by trouble. The critical offseason tests went poorly for Blue Oval drivers. The only Ford in the top 17 was Aric Almirola’s Richard Petty Motorsports car — in fourth. Logano, in the next Ford on the speed sheet, was almost 3 mph slower than testing leader Austin Dillon of the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team.
That eye-opener put mechanics and engineers to work at first light in Ford shop locations in Charlotte, N.C.
“There was plenty of hard work and introspection there on, ‘What do we have?’ ” Geisler said. “What are we missing? The engine company really stepped up for us. What we brought back to race (in the Daytona 500) was an improvement. Teams had gone back to Charlotte and did more work making sure we had the cars where they needed to be from an attitude perspective.”
When Cup teams returned to Daytona Beach in February to begin practice leading to the Daytona 500, the Fords had made notable improvement. The first 500 practice on Feb. 15 found four Fords in the top 10 and six in the top 12, and the sigh of relief across the Fusion family was almost audible.
Team Penske switched to Fords last season. Penske’s people went through an adjustment period, and Keselowski missed the Chase only a year after winning the championship.
Keselowski said some of the Ford surge this season can be linked to a modified nose piece on the Fusion this year. The front configurations of stock cars are significant in how air flows over and around the cars, impacting aerodynamics and, ultimately, speed and handling characteristics.
“When Ford came out with their [new] car two years ago, they were the first ones out the door, and there was a little bit different understanding as to what the rules were at that time than what they were at the start of the 2013 season,” Keselowski said. “I think we kind of got snookered right there on that particular part. We were allowed to update that to resemble that of the other manufacturers at the beginning of 2014, and I think that was a pretty significant change for us.
“We can point to probably a half-dozen races where that had a severe negative effect for the Ford performance, so that’s probably the biggest one that stands out is kind of getting back on an even playing field with that front fascia, but then again there’s more to it. There are a lot of small things that add up – the Roush Yates Engines shop has made some gains this year, which we’re proud of, and Team Penske has made some gains on the car side. I felt like we finished 2013 very strong, and, with those small improvements, we’re even better yet for 2014.”
Eyes on Team Penske
Ford’s impressive seasonal start, in particular the big stamp Team Penske has put on the first few weeks of the season, has raised antennae across the gossipy garage.
Kenseth, in his second season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota after a long run with Roush Fenway Racing and Ford, contributed a splash of controversy to the Bristol weekend by volunteering during a press conference that Team Penske’s fast start perhaps can be traced to additional testing information supplied by Leavine Family Racing and driver Michael McDowell, a middling Ford team.
Leavine, which buys cars and parts from Penske, has tested this season at Phoenix and Bristol. Tests are limited to four per organization, and NASCAR said the Leavine team has not violated any testing procedures by sharing information.
“We haven’t really had that [testing] luxury, so we’ve been trying to look into that and figure out how we can get a little more track data gathered,” Kenseth said.
Geisler said all information is valuable but added that different chassis setups and varying team approaches limit gains when separate teams are involved.
Doug Yates, head of Roush Yates Engines, which builds engines for most Ford teams, said his operation “knew when we left Daytona [testing] we had some pretty serious work to do. We came back with some good speed and had great qualifying and had a really good shot to win the race. Since then, it’s been a tremendous start with qualifying with the Penske guys and Brad’s win at Vegas. It’s been a lot of hard work.”
Now, the continuing search for a return to championship colors. “It’s a huge cloud,” Yates said. “Nobody remembers who finishes second. It’s been a while.”