Ford’s addition of Stewart-Haas changes balance of power –

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2017

Kevin Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team may have switched from Chevy to Ford over the winter, but the Southern Californian is still considered the favorite today on the mile oval at Phoenix.

The question is whether Fords will be considered the favorites as the season progresses? At this — ahem — stage, it does not appear wise to bet against them. The Ford engines built by Roush-Yates so far have had better fuel mileage, crucial in SHR driver Kurt Busch’s win at Daytona. And Busch says he believes the Ford V-8s also have more power than last year’s Chevy. Combine that with the chassis and aerodynamic development now shared by Team Penske with SHR and one has the makings of a powerhouse.

The combination of Penske and SHR is a much improved cry compared to the pre-existing alliance with Roush Racing. Having led 479 of the 792 laps in the first three races, the new combination of Ford teams has won two poles and two races and came within two laps of winning in Las Vegas. While Penske has yet to win a stage segment, Harvick has won three. In terms of points, five of the two teams’ drivers are in the top 12.

Last year, the Roush team was so far behind on its computer simulation program it couldn’t catch up. An increased emphasis on a tie-in with Penske didn’t make much difference — in part because the caliber of drivers at Roush was lacking by comparison.

“They (Roush Racing) weren’t as competitive as we were,” said team owner Roger Penske after his driver Brad Keselowski’s victory in Atlanta. “But we knew coming in with Stewart-Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us. In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them. So we know what they have and they know what we have.”

For the first eight years of its existence, SHR had a similar relationship to the Chevy team of Hendrick Motorsports that it now enjoys with Team Penske. During that time, SHR and Hendrick scored six Cup championships. (The other two went to Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.) It’s not too big of a stretch to expect that the new Ford combination could end Ford’s championship drought, in place since Busch won the first postseason Chase in 2004.

Other new developments favor the Fords. The Toyota team of Joe Gibbs Racing lost championship-caliber driver Carl Edwards for one year at least and hurriedly promoted promising rookie Daniel Suarez. At the same time, the alliance with Furniture Row Racing has added another rookie to the lineup. Erik Jones is very likely to be brilliant, but will he begin to really shine in his first season?

At Hendrick Motorsports, defending champion Jimmie Johnson leads a lineup that now includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again and super sophomore Chase Elliott. Kasey Kahne is showing signs of breaking out of his doldrums after going winless since 2014. But can a relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing and drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson pick up where the SHR team left off?

Things ebb and flow in NASCAR’s premier series, where horsepower and handling advantages don’t last long. If indeed there is a horsepower and fuel mileage gap, the Hendrick Motorsports engine builders are likely to close it. The Ganassi team now has technical guru Mark McArdle, who worked for Roush last year, on its side. Larson, called by Ganassi team general manager Max Jones “the most talented driver in the entire garage,” is beginning to show signs of his early promise.

This all makes the Phoenix round significant. Whether in the stages or when the checkered flag falls, victories by Chevy or Toyota would help break the stride of the Ford teams. Given Martin Truex Jr.’s sweep of the stages and the race on the 1.5-mile oval in Las Vegas, that’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibility — despite the fact Logano won last fall’s race at Phoenix, and prior to that Harvick won five out of six.

Harvick participated in the open test at Phoenix during the offseason, which helped his team in the transition to the Fords, said Crew Chief Rodney Childers. But Childers said he and his driver are not in position to just pick up where they left off with the Chevy entries. The key concern has been adapting to more aerodynamic downforce in the front of the Fords compared to the Impalas.

“I think the guys that didn’t make any changes over the winter are probably in the best shape,” said Childers. “Even though we were fast in Atlanta, I still don’t feel like we’re where we need to be. We’ve got a lot of things that we’re just getting going and it seems like everybody on every (SHR) car is different right now, just because we’re searching for what’s right and what’s wrong. So overall, we’re just trying to figure everything out.”

But when in doubt, Childers can consult with his counterparts at Team Penske as well as his own teammates. While not exactly a direct trade on all information, the alliance has been working well so far.


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