CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ford teams were the focus during Day 2 of the 34th annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom.
But measured by most standards, the Blue Oval was NASCAR’s number three manufacturer in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series. That’s a situation Ford executives don’t want to see repeated in 2016.
Chevrolet won 15 races and the manufacturer’s championship, and Toyota claimed 14 race wins and Kyle Busch was crowned Cup Series champion. Meanwhile, Ford drivers won just seven races, shared between Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Despite a series-high five wins by Logano, Ford failed to qualify a driver for the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway — though to be fair, Logano looked like the man to beat heading down the stretch until a pair of altercations with Toyota driver Matt Kenseth put an end to his (and Ford’s) championship aspirations.
The Ford team lineup is unchanged for the new season, but the Fusion that teams will be racing has undergone a mild update to reflect cosmetic changes that will be incorporated into the 2017 version of the production car.
Ford took advantage of the production Fusion’s mid-cycle refresh to homologate a new NASCAR body, featuring a re-profiled nose.
“The new car has aggressive styling at the front that we know is going to be a hit both on and off the track,” said Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance.
“We don’t race to race, we race to win, and we’re not going to be satisfied with anything less than a championship performance.”
Ford focused on refining the aerodynamics of the racing Fusion, spending thousands of hours in wind tunnels and using computational fluid dynamics and a full-motion simulator. Ford Performance operates out of a 33,000-square-foot facility located across the street from the NASCAR Technical Center.
Team Penske looks likely to lead the Ford attack again in 2016, with few changes being made to a group that claimed all seven of Ford’s 2015 race wins and placed drivers Logano and Keselowski in the Chase.
“We’re looking for 2016 to be a great year with the continuity across all aspects of our team,” said team owner Roger Penske, who noted that his Cup team features the same driver, crew chief and sponsor lineup for the third year in a row.
“I learned in business that you don’t want to have turnover and most of the people we have are what I call ‘home-grown,'” he added. “You saw the speed we had at the end of 2015 and I think we’re going to carry on where we left off.”
Without adding a third car in-house, Penske is expanding its footprint by helping the Wood Brothers return to full-time Cup Series competition in 2016. Penske development driver Ryan Blaney will run the full Cup schedule in the No. 21 Wood Brothers car while sharing time in Penske’s No. 22 Xfinity Series car with Keselowski and Logano.
“I’m looking forward to going back to some tracks where we haven’t been for awhile,” said Len Wood, son of team founder Glen Wood. “Last year was a building year for us, but we had speed everywhere we raced. We had some good runs with Ryan with a fourth- and a seventh-place finish, and that’s a great foundation for us to build on.”
Roush Fenway Racing is coming off the worst season in the team’s 30-year history in NASCAR, but team leaders said they believe the organizational changes set in motion in 2015 will begin to pay dividends this year.
RFR has amassed 135 Cup Series race wins since 1988, but the team failed to qualify a driver for the Chase in 2015 and lead driver Greg Biffle managed only three top-5 finishes.
Biffle and Trevor Bayne gain new crew chiefs, with Matt Puccia moving to Bayne’s No. 6 car and Brian Pattie coming on board with Biffle’s No. 16.
“We have a lot of changes in place and yet we have a lot of continuity with things that have been good for us in the past,” team principal Jack Roush said. “I am really excited about the way the organization has shaped up.”
Richard Petty Motorsports is maintaining its technical alliance with RFR, yet asserting its independence by taking over chassis construction in addition to hanging its own bodies.
The No. 9 team has undergone a complete makeover, emerging with a new number (44) and a new driver (Xfinity Series veteran Brian Scott).
With a stronger economic base under the 44 car and Aric Almirola narrowly missing out on a second consecutive Chase berth in 2016 in the famed No. 43, RPM is looking for more consistent performances this year.
“Hanging our own bodies was a huge success for us to be able to help with that consistency on the track,” RPM director of operations Sammy Johns said. “We are looking forward to building on that this year and a better product and faster cars for the guys to work with.
“Building our own chassis is a very exciting project for us, and because of our great partners we have been able to build this organization back to the Petty way of winning races and being a winning organization.”
Ultimately, Ford’s performance level in 2016 will have its basis in how effectively the new Fusion body works on NASCAR’s variety of ovals.
“We’re looking for strong performances from everyone, and all of our teams, along with Roush-Yates Engines, have been challenged to bring the championship home this year,” Pericak said. “We’ve created a new car that we know is going to exceed the performance of the outgoing model.”