After years of Roush Fenway Racing being its only reasonably competitive entry in the Sprint Cup Series, the Ford brand will see a renaissance come the start of the 2010 season.
With the merger of Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, and that new organization’s decision to campaign Fords, the make gained three cars on the grid, those of A.J. Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler, and former Ford development driver Kasey Kahne.
Combine that with the recent additions of Front Row Motorsports (two full-time cars, and potentially a third for John Andretti), the fifth Roush team's owners points being sold to a Vermont businessman, and the Wood Brothers’ limited schedule, there may be 13 Fords on the grid—the largest number of Fords that could run the Daytona 500 since the 2002 season, when there were 15.
In 2009, only seven Fords competed full-time—five in the Roush stable, one for Yates, and one for Hall of Fame Racing that ran out of the Yates shop. Another Yates car attempted the first five races of the year, and the Wood Brothers ran a limited schedule with former champion Bill Elliott.
With the states of General Motors and Chrysler (and thus their motorsports budgets) still somewhat in flux, Ford and its “open communication” strategy became most attractive to the fringe teams on the grid, teams that would in the past campaign Chevrolets or Toyotas because they were the most readily available.
Given the opportunity to use information developed in Jack Roush’s shops, as opposed to working on their own and struggling to remain in the top 35, these teams are making the obvious choice to ally.
This “open communication” strategy came out of the fall of what used to be one of the sport’s most powerful teams. Over the past few years, the once-mighty Robert Yates Racing evolved into Yates Racing, which became, in effect, a satellite team for Roush. Former Roush employee Max Jones joined Doug Yates to run the team, which relied on Roush sponsorship contacts to campaign former Roush driver Travis Kvapil in its No. 28 car.
Roush and Yates had already merged their engine departments, which were two of the best in the sport, and began supplying to the Wood Brothers early in the decade. While NASCAR had set a team cap, this system in effect allowed Jack Roush to run nearly ten cars.
Now, by attracting teams that would not have received any support at all from Chevrolet, which has been cutting back on its motorsports spending, and plucking one of the only two major Dodge teams, Roush can effectively run nearly a dozen on any given weekend.
The biggest question that comes from this near-doubling of Ford’s presence, however, is whether or not the right drivers are in place to win the brand a manufacturer’s championship.
Most of the teams have solid personnel—Front Row has benefited from the big teams downsizing, adding personnel that would not have been available to them in a better economy, but the men behind the wheel are just as important.
The three new drivers joining the brand are Kvapil and Kevin Conway. Kvapil only competed in limited schedules across the board in 2009, and Conway is a rookie with less than 30 combined starts in Nationwide and the Truck Series. As solid as Kvapil was in 2008, neither will likely contend to win races. Latitude 43 Motorsports, the new team that rose from the ashes of Roush Racing's fifth car, has not yet named a driver.
By running a limited schedule, the Wood Brothers are reasonably competitive in the 13 or so races a year they attempt, but 1985 champion Bill Elliott can’t race forever.
At Petty, Allmendinger is improving, but Sadler is no longer the same driver who made the Chase in 2004. Paul Menard regressed last season, with no strong finishes to show for his efforts. And the reunification of Kahne and Richard Petty with the Ford brand feels awkward and forced, given Petty’s history with Dodge and Ford’s lawsuit against Kahne when he left the brand to go Cup racing.
Even Roush has its questions. Which David Ragan will we see in 2010—the near-Chase driver of 2008, or the “arrow without feathers” that returned in 2009? Will Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth return to victory lane after struggling last season? What the heck happened to Carl Edwards last year, and will he be fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered playing Frisbee?
This is an important season for the Ford brand in the Sprint Cup Series. It’s been years since this many Fords have showed up on the grid with plans for full-time schedules, and these teams want to establish Ford as the top make in the series. They’re finally on par with Chevrolet and Toyota in terms of car count. The goal is to establish the new teams as contenders. If the new Ford teams can even knock on the top 20, we may see an end to the run of Chevrolet dominance.