Will Ford's wake-up call come at Michigan Speedway?

Will Ford's wake-up call come at Michigan Speedway?

It might be time for Ford to drop the word “Performance” when describing its NASCAR effort.

Since the Next Gen car was introduced in the Cup Series, the Blue Oval teams have underachieved. In the first 22 races of the season, three Ford drivers from two organizations have accounted for just four wins. 

Over the last decade, when Team Penske supplanted Roush Fenway Racing as Ford’s flagship effort in 2013, and Stewart-Haas Racing joined the fold in 2017, there was always a driver or a team that could at least compete if not go toe-to-toe with the best the other OEMs had to offer. 

In 2022, that simply isn’t the case.

“Four wins is not enough,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports.  “It’s not acceptable. We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up the standings and hopefully at least four, if not more, drivers into the playoffs. 

“It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it. We’ve seen a lot of success with speed at different tracks where we have understood it, but we still didn’t bring the win home.”

Ryan Blaney, Ford’s top driver in the point standings, is winless. Austin Cindric won the season-opening Daytona 500, but it has only been over the last 10 races that he’s been able to build consistency. He’s currently 15th in the standings. Joey Logano leads the Ford camp with two wins. But in his last five starts, he has just one finish better than 20th. Blaney’s recent results are not much better. He’s second in the standings, 125 points behind Chase Elliott. While Blaney has led laps in 18 races and had plenty of opportunities this season, the No. 12 Penske team has failed to close the deal. 

Speaking of closing, NASCAR’s closer Kevin Harvick is seven races away from extending his winless streak to two years. Since Kurt Busch left in 2018, Harvick has had to carry the load at SHR when it comes to leadership. No wonder he was so vocal about the possibility of bringing in a game-changing talent such as Kyle Busch. While Chase Briscoe has potential, there’s not another driver on the squad that’s going to contend for titles, let alone push Harvick to elevate his game.

Certainly Ford is going through a transition in the driver ranks, but Chevrolet has also recruited a lot of young talent and doesn’t seem to experience the same growing pains. Chevrolet currently own bragging rights in Cup with 13 wins among seven drivers. Forget about even mentioning the Xfinity Series, where Ford lacks a viable contender, let alone a decent development program.

Toyota holds the balance of victories—five between four drivers—but considering there are only six Camrys in the field on a given Sunday versus a minimum of a dozen Mustangs, the comparisons are sad. 

“There’s a lot of work to do, but that’s racing,” Rushbrook said. “We always need to make all elements of the car better, the engine, the aerodynamics, the chassis, the setup, the tire model, our simulator model, and that’s what we’re working on. We have a lot of meetings and advancements with our teams to try and do better every week.”

Still, it doesn’t help when other manufacturers poach key personnel, as was the case when GM opened its new technical center in North Carolina. While Ford fired the first shot, the Bow-tie Brigade fought back by snatching not only engineers from Ford’s R&D center earlier this year—which slowed the development of the new car—but more recently a development engineer from Roush Yates Engines.

“It’s a part of business,” said Roush Fenway Keselowski co-owner Brad Keselowski. “It’s certainly isn’t helpful. We have a lot of room to improve and grow. It’s certainly not the only area that we can be better but a big one for sure. 
Keeping talent is pivotal to our success.”

Other Ford owners have expressed concern as well but Rushbrook didn’t want to comment on the ramifications of having former employees poached.

“That does happen all the time in all directions between the manufacturers and teams,” Rushbrook said. “That’s part of the business, but we’re staffed and open for business at our tech center with our simulator and our aero program and analytics and everything that happens there. 

“So, we’ve got a great team of employees and they’re all working really hard to have performance on the track and bring home the race wins.”

Considering the capital—human and monetary—that OEMs are investing into their programs right now, the commitment is higher than ever in NASCAR. On the personnel side alone, efforts such as the Toyota Performance Center, which concentrates on the mental and physical health of athletes is revolutionary. Toyota has more development drivers than there are seats to put them in.

“Talent may be the most important thing in this sport because the cars don’t go fast without the people to make them go fast,” Rushbrook added. “So that is important to us—to recruit, attract the best employees that we can and to retain them.”

Ford has won the last seven Cup contests at the two-mile oval nestled in the Irish Hills. But on Sunday, Bubba Wallace will lead the field to green with two Toyotas behind him. In five of the last six Michigan races, the winner has come from the top three starting positions. Logano, the top Ford, starts fourth with Cindric fifth—the only Mustangs in the top 10. 

Maybe a Ford might get lucky in the FireKeepers Casino 400. Or perhaps Michigan Speedway might provide the wake-up call the Blue Oval needs to get back in the game.

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