Did You Notice? … Ford’s decision to race its Mustang model in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next season? The decision came four months earlier than Chevrolet’s choice last season to move to its Camaro.
The lengthy lead time gives Ford teams a window for development and testing. It’s a long-term plan the manufacturer hopes will lead to sustained momentum after a strong start to 2018 with its old Ford Fusion model.
— Ford Performance (@FordPerformance) April 17, 2018
Surely, a change of this magnitude has been in the works for months. But you wonder, after weeks of beating the competition handily, whether a new chassis has come at the wrong time. The Fusions are formidable, dominating at even the intermediate tracks where sleek new models typically shine. If the season ended today, eight Ford drivers would make the NASCAR playoffs, some 50 percent of the field.
All that is at risk with a new car design. So looking ahead, it’s important for the manufacturer to take a lesson from rival Chevrolet. The Camaro, which fell short of a win at Bristol due to Kyle Busch’s front bumper, has struggled out of the gate. Despite quality performances from Thunder Valley runner-up Kyle Larson, the Camaro remains winless since the Daytona 500.
It’s been a rocky debut for a Bowtie Brigade that once won the NASCAR manufacturer’s title 13 straight years (2002-2015). It’s got the largest roster of teams in the sport (17 cars) but hasn’t been able to turn quantity into quality.
The laps led totals for some of the top drivers on their roster? Embarrassing. Austin Dillon has led just one lap all season – his bump-and-run of Aric Almirola to take the Daytona 500. Slumping star Chase Elliott has led just twice, at Daytona and Texas, for a total of eight laps. And seven-time MENCS champ Jimmie Johnson? He hasn’t run out front since Martinsville last October.
The Camaro appears to be in crisis compared to the debut of the last two Chevy models in NASCAR’s Cup Series. A quick look showcases how well both the Impala and Chevy SS did right out of the gate by comparison.
NASCAR CHEVROLET MODELS – FIRST YEAR IN CUP
Chevrolet Impala (2010) – Transitioned Away From SS Model
Through eight races: Five wins, five poles, 22 top-five and 38 top-10 finishes
Won manufacturer’s, driver’s and owner’s championship (Johnson)
Chevrolet SS (2013)
Through eight races: Three wins, two poles, 15 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes
Won manufacturer’s, driver’s and owner’s championship (Johnson)
Chevrolet Camaro (2018)
Through eight races: One win, one pole (Daytona 500), 10 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes
Sitting last in the manufacturer’s standings, 30 points behind Ford
It’s no wonder why Chevy teams seek improvements to their Camaro chassis already after years of just minor adjustments to the SS. (Over in the XFINITY Series, rumor has it the Camaro gets a new nose next season.) Add in retirement from some of its major stars (Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart) the past few years and it’s clearly a multi-car effort in transition.
So is Ford going down a road of fool’s gold? I don’t think so. One key storyline emerging this year is how well its teams are working together. Roush Fenway Racing, arguably near the bottom of the totem pole, builds engines for all 13 teams. The four-car addition of Stewart-Haas Racing, dominant at times this season, works well with the other juggernaut, Team Penske. The departure of Danica Patrick was filled in with nice underdog stories like replacement Aric Almirola and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell. There’s synergy here.
Compare that to Chevrolet whose flagship operation, Hendrick Motorsports, is in an extended slump. Johnson has the longest winless streak of his career and is also the oldest driver in the series at 42. Young talent like William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Alex Bowman need time to develop while Elliott and Dillon have struggled. It almost feels like too much change for a manufacturer that’s served as the role model of NASCAR brilliance for years. Announcing a new chassis in August with such a young group didn’t help.
Of course, there’s still time for Chevy to pick up the pace. Remember the 2015 Toyota Camry? It started the season well off the pace before lapping the competition with an unlikely comeback in champion Kyle Busch. But we’re nearly a quarter of the way through the season now. The clock is ticking.
Ford’s teams, by comparison, are at the top of the game. The key is to bring the Mustang along while staying that way.
Did You Notice? … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has found stability at Roush Fenway Racing? A rough road to start 2018 was tempered Tuesday (April 17) with the word most major sponsors on his No. 17 Ford had re-upped through 2021. SunnyD, Fastenal and Fifth Third Bank have lined up to stick with one of the sport’s big surprises last season.
It’s a boost for a RFR organization that can’t get out of its own way this season. Trevor Bayne has yet to score a top-10 finish and sits 28th in points behind both FRM drivers: McDowell and David Ragan. Stenhouse, coming off a fourth at Bristol, is showing signs of waking up; he had a solid effort at Texas sidelined a week earlier with suspension failure.
But this signing is more about Ford’s long-term NASCAR planning than anything else. It wasn’t that long ago when rumors swirled RFR would have a For Sale sign on the property. Owner Jack Roush has no clear heir to his organization and will be 79 when these deals expire in three years.
But clearly, corporate backers felt RFR was going to be around for the long haul. Otherwise, why sign up for such a lengthy extension in this NASCAR economy? It makes you comfortable there’s already a succession plan in place in case Roush heads towards retirement the next few years. Engine builder Doug Yates, son of legendary car owner Robert, was once a strong contender to inherit this team. Has he been positioned to do so again?
No matter the answer, these long-term commitments are good for the sport and for Ford. NASCAR has had trouble securing sponsorship for its top-tier teams so middle-tier extensions are a step in the right direction. And while criticism surrounded just a one-year extension for title sponsor Monster Energy, it’s notable these deals were announced after the title sponsorship got settled.
Did You Notice? … Quick. Speedy. Hits.
- Have you heard about the Pocono Raceway selfie session with Alex Bowman? Instead of autographs, fans are allowed to take selfies with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement. Most of those will be shared on social media along with the excitement of meeting him. It’s ideas like this one that not only connect to the millennial crowd but give hope that NASCAR drivers are “getting it” after harsh criticism in recent years for not being fan friendly enough.
- The Bristol race was fantastic, both Sunday and Monday. Martinsville underperformed based on recent history but was still very watchable. That said, Mother Nature took its toll on NASCAR momentum. Both events had viewership crippled by rain that pushed them back a day. There’s really no solution to a raging downpour but the poor luck can’t help reverse some 2018 NASCAR negativity.
- Speaking of viewership and attendance… I’ve said many times it should be a non-story this season because the retirement of any sport’s biggest star (in this case, Earnhardt) is bound to cripple ratings. But the level of decline in Texas viewership (a full Nielsen ratings point) is concerning. Remember, it’s all about perception in a 2018 world where one snippet tells a whole story for some. The attendance at the short tracks, particularly Bristol, was also atrocious because of the weather. Seeing the sport’s great colosseum virtually empty was a depressing sight – especially considering the quality of competition.
- At least Bristol is reacting to what they saw. A decision Tuesday to move the Camping World Truck Series race to Thursday night instead of Wednesday, eliminating the off night during its August weekend makes too much sense. Now, fans can condense their trip, in many cases saving money. And those who missed the Wednesday night show? They’re more likely to come early and see the best series NASCAR has to offer.