MOORESVILLE, N.C. — It’s been three days, and there’s still a sense of confusion as to why Stewart-Haas Racing will switch to Ford next year.
The short answer: They want to win more races, and co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas believe a move from underneath Hendrick Motorsports’ wing will do the trick.
But it’s not so simple.
SHR has partnered with Hendrick Motorsports — Chevrolet’s No. 1 team — and received support from the perennial title contender since 2009. They’ve won two championships, with Stewart in 2011 and Kevin Harvick in ’14, using this formula.
Why fix what isn’t broken?
Haas said Wednesday he wanted his teams to be more self-sufficient. Getting under the Ford umbrella will have the desired effect, because it gives SHR a chance to build everything about the car except for engines. Roush Yates Engines provides the power for every Ford team. Other than that, though, it’ll all be in-house for the first time.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. The six-month process leading up to a manufacturer change wasn’t solely motivated by SHR’s desire to win. Ford had a hand in it as well. They want to be up front every week.
Look at the top five from last week’s Daytona 500. See any Ford cars? Not unless you count future Ford driver Kevin Harvick.
It isn’t so much Stewart-Haas joining the Ford camp as it is the folks at Dearborn, Mich. wanting another powerhouse in their clutches. This was an answer to Toyota, which took four of the top five spots in the 500 and, I expect, will be the most successful team out of the gate with the lower downforce package.
Remember two years ago, when Denny Hamlin said the Toyotas were down by about 15 horsepower to the Chevrolets? Toyota won a whopping two NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2014. They were winless after Hamlin won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in early May.
The Japanese manufacturer dominates the marketing side of NASCAR. I can’t check Twitter without finding at least one Toyota-promoted tweet on my feed. Toyota signs are all over NASCAR tracks. At Daytona, there’s a Toyota grandstand entrance. Toyota sponsors the wifi – password: Toyota – and the restaurant is, you guessed it, the Toyota Roadhouse.
There’s ample reason for Toyota to have gone to NASCAR in 2014 and said, “Look, we’re spending a ton of cash on your top three series. We’ve got some of the best drivers and the best minds in the business, but we’re blowing engines trying to keep up. Level the playing field a bit.”
One manufacturer complaining about a lack of equality in the Cup Series isn’t unheard of, anyway. It’s more of a tradition. Chevy drivers said Ford had all the breaks in 2000. Ford drivers were none too pleased with Chevy when Jeff Gordon seemingly won on a weekly basis in the late 1990s.
And so it goes. Toyota went from struggling in the win column to dominating. NASCAR reduced horsepower last year and dropped downforce this year, which has made Toyota the top manufacturer of late.
The quickest way for Ford to catch back up was to subtract from its rivals. As of now, Chevrolet – who won every Cup championship from 2005-’14 – has Hendrick Motorsports under contract for 2017, and no other team with a Cup points win in the last two-plus seasons.
Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing have been shut out of victory lane since 2013. They’re competing to take over SHR’s spot. At the moment, Ganassi is the only high-profile team expected to be a Hendrick customer next year.
Still, there are rumors they might switch to Ford as well. Ganassi’s WeatherTech SportsCar teams use Ford power, but his Verizon IndyCar Series cars are fitted with Chevy engines. He may have a decision to make at some point.
Regardless, one thing is true: Ford is in it to win it, and grabbing Stewart-Haas proves they’re ready to do battle.
But I’ll bet this year’s biggest surprise won’t be its last.