Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ford teams continue to struggle for answers to speed, aero woes

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With eight wins in the first 19 Cup races this season – including three in the last six – you’d think Ford would be at the top of its game.

But such is not the case. While Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson have been at or near the front often in recent races, Fords have dropped off in performance.

The two premier Ford teams, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, have both struggled for more speed and to overcome aerodynamic issues.

“Aero is definitely an area we’re struggling,” Dave Pericak, Director, Ford Performance, said Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “We’re definitely not struggling from an engine perspective and many other areas, but yeah, aero, for sure, and we’re working on it.”

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has watched his driver slip from third in the Cup standings to eighth in the last eight races. During that stretch, Keselowski has finished 30th or worse (crashes) four times, and had just two top fives.

“We’re not in the best spot we’d like to be in,” Wolfe admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Seems like the last couple months have definitely been a challenge and a little bit of a struggle for all of us at Team Penske, not just the No. 2 car.

“We’re really just trying to find out what to do to get some speed back in our cars. It seems like where we get the cars driving and the drivers are somewhat happy with what we call a raceable balance, we’re just off on speed at that point. We can get the cars to run a fast lap time, but the drivers say they’re just not drivable and can’t race that way. It’s been a challenge trying to get both right now, and for whatever reason, we seem to be off.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski says ‘poorly designed car’ makes it difficult ‘to put on a show’

Time is not a luxury Wolfe or anyone else at Team Penske has. Seven races remain until the playoffs.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Wolfe said. “There’s not too many races here until Chicago comes around, so we’re trying to figure it out, that’s for sure.”

Wolfe’s Team Penske counterpart, Todd Gordon, faces an even greater sense of urgency with the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Even though Logano won at Richmond earlier this season, the victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

As a result, Logano is not locked into the playoffs and is in a seemingly must-win situation to secure a playoff berth. Things have gone from bad to worse of late: since his encumbered win at Richmond, Logano has finished between 21st and 37th seven times, with just one top-five and one other top-10 (plus a 12th-place finish) in the other three events.

Logano has fallen from fifth to 13th in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Wolfe can empathize with the plight of Logano and Gordon.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but this sport over the years, there’s peaks and valleys,” Wolfe said. “We’re been on the good side and bad side before.

“We’re going to have confidence everyone at Team Penske and Ford will continue to work in the right direction and hopefully get our speed where we need it to contend for a championship later this year.”

A tale of two seasons in just 19 races

Fords enjoyed early season success, winning the season’s first two races at Daytona (Kurt Busch) and Atlanta (Keselowski).

Ford also won at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega – and earned three more wins in the last six races, but those came on a road course (Sonoma), a restrictor-plate track (Daytona) and a triangle that is seemingly part superspeedway and part road course (Pocono).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two wins (Talladega and Daytona), as does Keselowski (Atlanta and Martinsville), while Kurt Busch (Daytona 500), Joey Logano (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Pocono) and Harvick (Sonoma) all have one win each.

But check out some of the other recent Ford stats:

* At Michigan, in its corporate backyard, Ford had one car in the top five and led just two of the 200 laps.

* At Kentucky, Ford had no cars in the top five and led just seven laps.

* At New Hampshire last weekend, Ford had one car in the top five and led zero laps.

How did things fall off so quickly for Ford when it came to downforce and lack of speed? Wolfe has a theory.

“As the season went on, NASCAR started changing enforcement of some templates and some aero things, and for whatever reason, it seems like it affected the Fords maybe more than Toyota,” Wolfe said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Obviously, Toyota came out with a new car, they were slow getting going, but they definitely have it figured out and seem to have a little bit of an advantage right now.

“I feel like some of the rule changes on the aero side has really affected our cars a lot and trying to get them balanced out, back to where they were before some of those changes has been difficult for us.”

When Wolfe thinks he is starting to get a handle on things, other questions arise he told “The Morning Drive.”

“Is it more of a mechanical area that we’re missing with this package because of the aero shift?” Wolfe said. “Or the amount of downforce it is, is there something we’re missing mechanically with the platform of how we control our splitter or ride heights?

“Or is it just the fact those guys just have more downforce than us? Those are all the question marks and we don’t really have the answers right now. Maybe we can get out of our comfort zone and mindset of what has had success in the past and explore new things. We’ll continue to do that and pay attention to teams that are having success.”

Stewart-Haas Racing also has woes

Wolfe’s counterpart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, admitted to “Tradin’ Paint” on Thursday that his team is pretty much in the same boat as Team Penske.

“I hate to even say it but I agree with (Wolfe),” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “On one side of me, I feel that we’re in trouble. I don’t know if we will get caught up to where we need to be.

“I feel l like it’s time that Ford is going to have to push hard and come up with a new body and do something to get us back in the ballgame from the downforce side of things.”

Childers would like to see NASCAR get more involved in the disparity he believes has developed between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

“I think it’s time for NASCAR to take all the cars to the wind tunnel again and figure out where we’re all at,” Childers said. “If there are people that are way off, other teams, then we need to figure out how to make it more equal. You hate to get into that again.”

Even so, Childers remains confident in his team, given that Harvick is the highest-ranked Ford driver (fourth) in the Cup standings.

“The downforce stuff, we’re not way off,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of had the best Ford week after week here lately. We’re pushing hard and we’re not going to give up by any means and I think everybody will see that in our performance.

“But on the other hand I do feel like it has hurt us a little bit more and we just have to figure out how to dig through it.”

Ups and downs are cyclical

Childers also mentioned the irony that it wasn’t all that long ago that SHR and Harvick were being looked upon as the kings of performance (albeit in Chevrolets), much like Truex and Larson are today.

“I look back at the 2014 and 2015 seasons and everybody used to complain about us being the fastest car every week, leading all those laps and always have a shot at winning,” Childers said. “Looking back, I don’t even know if we understood then exactly what we were doing to be that much faster than everybody else.

“I think it’s the same way with (Truex and Larson) right now. They’ve done a good job, have their cars where they need them to be, their drivers are doing excellent jobs, the pit crews are doing a good job.”

But there’s still the bottom line.

“We have to get faster race cars,” Childers said. “Our pit crews have done excellent, Kevin’s done excellent, we just have to be faster when we unload off the haulers. Hopefully, we can get caught up a little bit.”

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NASCAR America: Cup series experiencing significant parity of late (video)

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The 2017 NASCAR Cup season has been an interesting study to date.

Not only have there been three first-time winners – Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon – the last eight races in particular have marked a period of incredible parity and diversity in the series.

There have been eight different winners in the stretch of races from the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte to this past Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

During Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman discussed their thoughts on what has made the last eight races so competitive – yet disparate when it comes to the end results.

First, let’s hear from Petty:

“There’s no dominant driver. We haven’t seen a Jimmie Johnson, a Jeff Gordon, a Matt Kenseth winning six or seven races a few years ago, just dominating everywhere you go.

“We’ve not had that this year. We’ve had a few guys who’ve run upfront, have won a few races and won a lot of stages – the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.), we can say that – but at the end of a day, not a dominant driver.

“No. 2, the different style racetracks we’ve had. We’ve had a 600-mile race (Charlotte), a banked mile race (Dover), a triangle (Pocono), a 2-mile track (Michigan), a road course (Sonoma) and a speedway (Daytona). When you throw that many different tracks at teams, some teams are going to perform better than others.

“The other part of it for me is penalties, mistakes and stage racing. Stage racing has changed how some of these guys approach the day. We saw that this past weekend at New Hampshire. Kyle Busch gave up points in that first stage to win the second stage.

“We also see penalties and mistakes by pit crews and drivers and penalties on pit road have taken drivers out of winning one or two races.

“I think this is a great part of the season for teams. When you look back over these races and see maybe not the guys that won races, but those that led races and run in the top four or five, they’re the guys that are going to be the four guys (challenging for the Cup championship) at Homestead.”

Kligerman essentially agreed with Petty but with one exception – while Petty put the advent of stage racing last on his list of the three major differences this season, Kligerman put stage racing at the top of his list.

Here’s what Kligerman said:

“Stage racing and the strategy that has shown up, you have drivers solely who care about winning the stage so they get that playoff point because they’re locked into the playoffs and want to pad their points for the playoffs. You have other drivers that are trying to point themselves into the playoffs, they care about every stage point possible. That has really mixed things up.

“Young drivers within these different organizations. They’re going out there and competing and showing they have different skills, that they brought to organizations that maybe weren’t the best. Young drivers are bringing up those organizations up to the front at those types of tracks.

“Schedule diversity, the vast amount of tracks, that’s where we both agree. That diversity of the schedule has certainly added up.”

Petty summed it all up by adding, “We are in a stage where there’s a transition from the older and established drivers to these younger drivers, and they’re going to have an impact on the sport.

“With these eight organizations winning these last eight races, that’s an impact already. … We are in that transition, we’re seeing it and these are the initial results of it.”

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Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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What drivers said after New Hampshire race

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Denny Hamlin — Winner: “I put us behind on Friday with the backup car getting in a wreck, but this – I really wish we would race that car that was in the hauler, but this one they did a great job getting it as close as they could working on the balance, getting it good yesterday and team effort. This is a total team effort all around.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 2nd: “This is the third time we’ve had to start last and drove up to second.  I wish we could have been a spot better again, but really proud of my team and proud of the cars that they’re bringing for me to drive each and every week.  It’s been a tough couple weeks through the tech line, so if we make it through here and then have a good Tuesday at NASCAR, but we’ll see.’’

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We still had a shot, but on the last restart we got the inside lane there, restarted third.  It wasn’t the place to be, obviously.  I think (Denny Hamlin) started fourth and that was really the place I would have liked to have been.  And then we just didn’t get a good restart on the bottom and lost a couple spots and had to battle back and then just didn’t quite have the speed at the end of the race that we had the first 200 laps.’’

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “The guys did a great job. They made it a little better than it was in practice. They executed on pit road all day and did all the little things right. We didn’t have the speed that the Toyota’s had through the center of the corner. As the long run would go that gap got wider as we got worse. We hung in there and fought all day and everyone did a good job to get us a good finish.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 8th: “Those long greens are reminiscent of the old days where you would have green flag pit stops mixed in. It is neat to change lanes and try to find different things with the (PJ1) and the grip that they put down. When you are out there running and you get in that rhythm, you think if you preserve your tires you can get two or three-tenths when we get to Lap 50, half a second when we get to Lap 70. It gave you the old school feel of taking care of the tires. Overall, you have to go fast for 50 laps, that is all you have to do anymore. We need to get better on the short run speed.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 9th: “Yeah, that was a reasonable finish for us for sure. We weren’t probably as fast as we wanted to be, but we stayed very persistent as a team and that is good. The pit stop was a bummer. I am not sure what happened there. Nobody wants to see that happen. I don’t know if the compound made things any racier. It was certainly different but I don’t know if it was — I have to think about that one.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 10th: I just got it wrong at the start. I went off the flag and forgot that the pole sitter has to be the first one to the stripe; so I’ll take the responsibility on that one.  And then, we had an okay finish. We had decent short-run speed. We would just fall off too hard. I really thought we were going to be in a position for a top five but we ended up 10th.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 13th: “I feel like we probably won somebody some points in fantasy with passing all the cars from starting 31st. The car was pretty good. Honestly, I have had very few races at Loudon where I don’t have a good race car. We just have to qualify better so that I can take advantage of that and have track position the whole time.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished 14th –  “We fought all day so I’m proud of our team. We got damage early on which cost us valuable track position. Overall it wasn’t the best day for us, but we learned some things that we can bring back for the fall race.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 15th: “We were able to run top-10 lap times all day. I still think there is some speed to be gained in the downforce of our cars, but I know that’s something we’re all actively working on improving. We pulled together as a team to recover from an early spin and got ourselves in a good position late in the race for a top-10 finish. We gambled on a strategy call for our last pit stop and it just didn’t work out. That happens sometimes in racing. Now it’s time to turn our focus towards Indianapolis Motor Speedway and work on our strategy for one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.  – FINISHED 18th: “We were 13th and 18th in practice. Didn’t have good speed all weekend. The best we were going to run was 10th probably, ended up 18th. That is the kind of risk we’ve got to take. We were hoping that the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and a couple of other guys that were kind of on the same strategy would stay out behind us.  But, I knew when nobody stayed out that as fast as that front four or five were it was impossible to hold them off. We’ve got to take risks though, but hopefully we’ve got a faster car when we are doing it and that might give us a little better shot at it.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 19th: “I feel like we started out OK, and I thought we made decent gains. About halfway I thought the track changed and all that stuff got off of it. We kind of got a little worse. We tried the long run and I couldn’t really get it. It didn’t play out for us. That stinks. I didn’t get a great finish out of it. The first half of the day went pretty good. We just need to figure out how to finish out the second half.”

Trevor Bayne – Finished 20th: “Our Performance Plus Motor Oil Ford would start out really fast. But over the course of a run the handling would become more and more tight and we had a hard time getting through traffic. We were able to make gains throughout the course of the race and we were gaining on a few more cars when we just ran out of laps there at the end. We’ll take what we learned here shift our focus to Indy next week.”

Paul Menard — Finished 22nd: “The Sylvania / Menards Chevrolet came to life in the final stage of today’s race, but track position was so important. Matt Borland and all of the guys on this team kept adjusting on the car to help it turn through the center and get the drive off the corner right. We tried to stretch the fuel mileage and catch a caution late in the going, raced inside the top five, but the caution didn’t fall the way we hoped. Next week we head to my favorite track, so we’ll shift our focus and see what we can do at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 27th: “One of the positives from today is seeing the cars we raced around finish in the top 10. It reflects the speed we had. We struggled pretty much all weekend and the setup (crew chief) Luke (Lambert) and the engineering team came up with for today proved beneficial. At the end of the long runs, we were one of the fastest cars on the track. It was nice to earn stage points. It’s too bad our pit strategy didn’t pan out and contact with another car caused us to spin. Fortunately, we didn’t hit anything. We needed a caution at the end to get us back into contention but the race stayed green.”

Joey Logano — Finished 37th: “We just broke. Plain and simple. It is not good, at all. Right now we are in the position where we have to execute. We have to finish the best as possible and we didn’t do that today. We have to go back to work and make sure our cars stay together and we have to get faster. All three of our cars were a little off today. I guess Brad (Keselowski) is probably the best driver at this race track, and I try to learn from him and he was struggling out there with me. It was a humbling day. This race team knows how to do this. All of Team Penske knows how to win races and make cars fast. They do it in a bunch of different series and have been doing it over here for years. We have to stay together. Stay as a team. Keep pushing. If it happens, it happens. Hopefully we can get some speed enough to squeak a win out before the playoffs.”

Erik Jones — Finished 40th: “I think we were just kind of three wide just kind of sandwiched (on pit road) in there and I came out and the 11 (Denny Hamlin) was on my door and the 5 (Kasey Kahne) came out and was on my door too, so just got too tight and made some contact. I guess it was just enough to let it cut the tire or something. Just really unfortunate. We’ve had some really bad luck this year and this is another one of those days, so hopefully we can turn it around.”

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Kyle Busch wins Stage 2 of New Hampshire Cup race

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Kyle Busch led every green-flag lap in Stage 2 of the Overton’s 301 to claim his fifth stage win of the season.

Busch, who has gone winless in the last 34 races, led 72 laps on the way to the stage victory.

The top 10 after 150 laps were Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer.

The only caution of the stage came on Lap 88 when Austin Dillon made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and spun exiting Turn 4. Pole-sitter and Stage 1 winner Martin Truex Jr. narrowly avoided Dillon, diving to the inside as the No. 3 Chevrolet went around in front of him.

Dillon finished the stage in 24th.

Before Stage 2 went green the race was briefly put under a red flag to make repairs to the track surface in Turn 3.

The Overton’s 301 is scheduled to end on Lap 301.