No one saw it coming.
Shocked is the reaction that immediately came to mind as the NASCAR collective woke up on Wednesday morning to news that Stewart-Haas Racing would no longer be fielding Chevrolets, and beginning in 2017, Fords.
What were team co-owners Gene Haas Tony Stewart thinking? Why would he abort a partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, the New York Yankees of auto racing, and with Chevrolet – the manufacturer that has won the previous 13 manufacturers championships? Why would he rock the boat when his teams have won two of the previous five driver titles and 30 races since 2009?
Is a move to Ford the right move for Stewart-Haas Racing?
Stewart-Haas Racing is Making a Terrible Mistake
That’s how long it’s been since Ford last won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (then Nextel Cup) championship in 2004.
Remember 2004? The Chase for the Cup was brand new. A young, gangly Kurt Busch out-wheeled the competition – literally, his own wheel forced a championship-saving yellow at Homestead – to take the title for Roush Fenway Racing.
Four teams, three changes to the Chase format, two meltdowns and a brief suspension later, Busch will again look to bring Ford a title, with SHR in 2017.
If the above comes off as a character assassination of the elder Busch brother, I apologize. It isn’t meant to serve as a criticism. No, it’s meant to show just how long it’s been since Ford was competitive enough to rise above the rest of the field as champions.
In that same time period, Chevrolet has won a whopping nine championships, with Dodge and Toyota each claiming a championship of their own.
Ford, on the other hand, has stalled.
Longtime front-runner RFR has gradually lost speed over the last decade, falling from among the front-runners to mid-pack on a good day, and prompting long-time drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards to jump ship and head to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Attempts to bring in new teams to lead the manufacturer have brought mixed results. Richard Petty Motorsports has found their ceiling to be somewhere in the back-half of the top-10 in recent years, and Team Penske’s dynamic duo can’t seem to go 10 clean races without angering their fellow drivers to take the title.
Somehow, throughout all of this, Ford has found a way to convince Tony Stewart and Gene Haas that switching from bowties to blue ovals is a good decision.
Never mind that the team will have to switch from gaining chassis and motors from Hendrick Motorsports to building their own chassis and relying on Roush Yates Racing engines.
Never mind that the move forgoes any sense of loyalty that the team’s members have with Chevrolet. Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer – the retiring Stewart’s replacement next season – will each make their first starts for Ford next season as things stand. Harvick and Patrick have each made every Cup in their careers in Chevrolets. As for Stewart, a driver whose every NASCAR accomplishment has come in Chevrolet, and who famously left Toyota after one season to return to the manufacturer, nothing more needs to be said.
Never mind that Harvick looks like a championship contender yearly with Chevrolet. Never mind that fans across the US feel betrayed by the announcement.
Sometimes business supersedes performance. Judging by every piece of known evidence stacked against SHR is this decision, I’m assuming that’s what happening here.
I sure hope the money and resources are worth it.
Great Move. It Sets The Team Up For the Future
Look, Stewart and co-owner Gene Haas aren’t stupid and they’re not going to make the move unless they think it’ll serve the team in the long-run. They put six months of deliberation in before they pulled the trigger and sent the press release out to the media. The decision really comes down to three things:
Charters, support and talent.
Everyone knew that the charter system was a big deal, and now we know just how big it is if it could lead to the breakup of NASCAR’s power couple of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas. In years past, teams might have been content to continue alliances because of the pains switching could cause. Remember the issues Team Penske had when they switched to Ford from Dodge? They went from champions in 2012 to race 23 before winning a race in 2013.
But with a charter system that provides more purse money and a guaranteed starting spot in the field to those teams with a charter (SHR has four), teams can make more drastic changes knowing they won’t be going anywhere while the awkwardness happens. SHR can promise sponsors that the change to Ford won’t hurt for too long and that they’ll be back to top-shape in the coming years.
Of course, SHR could avoid the growing pains altogether and continue its dominance when 2017 rolls around. This dominance had to be in the back of Stewart and Haas’ minds when they made the decision to switch. They knew the reality that while they were becoming Chevrolet’s top team (they’ve won more championships than HMS since 2011) they would never surpass HMS in the Chevrolet pecking order, especially when the team received so much support from HMS.
A switch to Ford, however, puts SHR on the same level as Team Penske as Ford’s top team and the financial perks that come from being on the top of the pile. By adding chassis-making capability, SHR is much more self-contained than they were and doesn’t have to rely on someone else’s equipment.
SHR can leverage its newfound independence by selling chassis and such to other Ford teams. Roush Fenway Racing has had a terrible few years. I’d imagine Roush, Henry and Co. would gladly stand in line to receive support from SHR if it could right their ship.
This isn’t just a good move for SHR, it’s a good move for Ford. See why they made this coup?
But it’s about even more than money and support, it’s about talent. Ford has young stars in Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney – notice how they’re all aligned with Team Penske? It used to be that RFR was the pipeline that Ford relied on. How has that turned out the last few years? Trevor Bayne has been uninspiring since his 2011 Daytona 500 victory, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. couldn’t turn two XFINITY championships into meaningful Cup results, and Chris Buescher – last year’s XFINITY champion – is in Cup with Front Row Motorsports.
With only Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ryan Reed, Tyler Reddick, Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric for Ford in the lower series – and all need more time before moving up – Ford realized that they need to work on future talent. The alliance with SHR does this – Cole Custer, anyone? I realize he’s driving for Chevy darling Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but his real allegiance lies with sponsor Haas Automation, and what team does Haas own?
Lastly, humor me for a moment. Ford lost a certain young driver to Chevrolet in the early 1990s, and that driver went on to win 93 races and four series championships. Jeff Gordon’s cousin James Bickford is running a Ford the K&N Pro Series West and should he progress up the racing ladder, I’d imagine that Ford would want to keep him in the fold to make up for the loss of Gordon all those years ago. SHR would be the perfect place for Bickford to land. That obviously isn’t the only reason Ford signed SHR, but wouldn’t it be a fitting way to change the manufacturer’s story?
Only time will tell whether or not this move is a great one, but mark my words: the Ford and Stewart-Haas marriage will be great for both parties.