Did You Notice? … Ford’s future prospects were hanging on 70-something-aged owners? That’s the backbone to me of Thursday’s surprise announcement Stewart-Haas Racing would be switching to Ford in 2017. The four-car team will finally break away from its partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, shifting over to the Blue Oval camp while receiving engines from Roush Yates. The move, combined with poaching Team Penske shows that Ford is serious about winning its first manufacturer’s title since 2002.
It also shows its concern about ownership over the long-term. Yes, there are other fractures in relationships that would cause SHR to look elsewhere. In the last five years, SHR has more titles (two) than partner HMS (one), and despite the HMS “team” mantra it had to be frustrating to “hand off” chassis and engines that someone else was using to beat the team every week. Chevrolet also has the most full-time programs of any manufacturer, and the addition of Rob Kauffman to Chip Ganassi Racing (see quick hits below) shows HMS has another program to latch onto for extended support.
But there’s also an opening for SHR at Ford. Despite Team Penske’s brilliance the last two years, ownership there has been reluctant to expand past a two-car program. In this era of four-car teams and information sharing, that’s problematic; it always seems Penske starts off behind the resources of a team like HMS or Joe Gibbs Racing.
There’s also the reality here of age. Roger Penske is 79 years old and shares a chassis and engine relationship with soon-to-be 74-year-old Jack Roush. Roush, who has appeared to be in declining health in recent years, was heavily rumored to be selling his organization to Doug Yates last year and has seen his team struggle mightily, failing to make the Chase last season. Other future alternatives, like Richard Petty Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports, have been around for years and plateaued in terms of results.
Compare that to Tony Stewart, ready to retire and turn toward full-time ownership at age 45. Inheriting his well-funded, four-car program allows Ford to breathe easy knowing it has a young owner with whom to build into the future. It’s the type of flagship program Chevy (HMS) and Toyota (JGR) had and Ford simply didn’t, until now.
Did You Notice? … The changing of the guard hasn’t happened yet? We talked a lot heading into this season about whether the 20-somethings could make a breakthrough. For most of Speedweeks, they were making their presence felt, anywhere from Chase Elliott winning the pole for Saturday’s XFINITY Series event to Ryan Blaney fighting back from an unscheduled stop to contend in Thursday’s Duel races. Heading into Sunday’s 500 the excitement was palpable that we could see these new names play a factor.
Then, a little word we haven’t seen happen at Daytona came into play: handling. It’s the type of curveball most veterans can handle but is more likely to throw the newbies for a loop. Yes, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. even spun out because of the windy day, and treacherous conditions Daytona presented in the daytime but the younger drivers were clearly affected more.
You could see that impact down the stretch when you look at who the contenders were in the closing laps. It was 44-year-old Matt Kenseth at the point with 35-year-old Martin Truex, Jr. running right behind him, part of the five-driver Toyota freight train of 30- and 40-something drivers armed with the experience of knowing how to work together. Who became the major challenger as the white-flag lap neared, using the high line to his advantage? Forty-year-old Kevin Harvick. While some young drivers hung in there for top-10 finishes like Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, the best any rookie could do was Blaney in 19th. Elliott spun out, of course along with fellow youngster Matt DiBenedetto, taking Chris Buescher with him.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- One big disappointment from the 500: Jamie McMurray. The driver of the No. 1 Chevy was a popular darkhorse pick but never seemed to have the speed or the handling to contend in the 500. With Larson having a much better Speedweeks at a place (plate tracks) that typically leans McMurray it’ll be interesting to watch the No. 1 team going forward this season. McMurray is in a contract year, and with the addition of Rob Kauffman’s finances expectations on the No. 1 car are expected to rise. You also have to figure based on the Stewart-Haas Racing announcement it’s CGR that will transition into Hendrick’s “B” team going forward as long as JR Motorsports stays in the XFINITY Series.
- Another big driver to watch heading to Atlanta: Kasey Kahne. Wins have come few and far between for him in recent years but Atlanta is one of his best tracks statistically. If there’s a place for Kahne to strike, it’s intermediate ovals, and he had a reasonable top-15 finish in Sunday’s Daytona 500. The new handling package offers Kahne, who many people thought might not keep his ride at HMS, an opportunity to come out strong in 2016. When 10 of your 17 career victories are on tracks between 1.5 and 2 miles in length, you want to make sure to take advantage of those opportunities.
- Daytona saw the Truck Series have 43 trucks competing for 32 spots. Atlanta? 34 teams survived to make it to the track the following week (though three full-time teams are expected to be added to the final rundown). That’s a loss of about 20 percent, but still a strong enough field that NASCAR’s third-tier division is looking up. No start-and-parks can be expected there for the near future.