Ryan: Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing marriage prompts lingering questions

4 Comments

Both sides of NASCAR’s most momentous deal in recent memory each believe there is tremendous upside, or the agreement never would have been struck.

In adding Stewart-Haas Racing next season, Ford Performance gains a four-car powerhouse that has won two of the past five championships and gives the Blue Oval a legitimate shot at its first Sprint Cup manufacturer’s championship since 2002 (Chevy has won the past 13 in a statistical category based on an automaker’s highest finisher).

In aligning with Ford, SHR gains the ability to build its own chassis, taking control of its direction on car development, while also getting a sweetheart deal that surely will mean a cash infusion over its previous deal with Chevy.

The downside?

The most obvious is the potential for SHR to endure an awkward final season with Chevy chassis and engine supplier Hendrick Motorsports. While both sides have been saying the right things, the situation simply is too fraught to expect a perfectly smooth parting.

But will it be clear sailing once the new partnership begins in 2017?

Not necessarily. While it might seem as if Chevy and Hendrick are facing a more unclear future with an engine gap to fill and a power structure to address, there also will be lingering questions for Ford and SHR when their marriage officially begins in a little less than a year.

Here are a few:

–Penske cooperation: Wednesday’s announcement of the addition of SHR hardly focused on Ford’s current flagship organization: Team Penske. That might seem odd: The Fusions of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been perennial contenders for the past two seasons, and both might have raced for the championship last year if not for late-race misfortune twice in the third round.

But Penske’s absence from the announcement also could be construed as being partially by design, telegraphing what’s to come in their relationship with the new team on the block.

With roots firmly planted in the “Unfair Advantage” philosophy that it rode to a record 16 victories in the Indianapolis 500, Penske has a history of not playing nice with others in NASCAR’s premier series. When it was a Dodge team from 2003-2012, Penske was criticized by its manufacturer teammates (such as Evernham Motorsports) for declining to collaborate on sharing information and R&D. It has a strong alliance with Wood Brothers Racing, but that’s as a supplier of both equipment and personnel (driver Ryan Blaney). The dynamics are different for cars affiliated only by a logo.

Cooperation between Penske and SHR might be a non-starter anyway if, as expected, both teams are building chassis on separate platforms. But it seems a given that the relationship will be vastly different than the harmonious relationship enjoyed by Stewart-Haas and Hendrick, which liked billing itself as a virtual eight-car team with a completely open book on crucial setup and technical data.

It’s probable – and certainly Ford’s hope – that both teams will qualify multiple cars for the playoffs. Yet there still could be lingering tension despite the mutual success in vying for exposure and recognition – reasoning that isn’t unlike what Tony Stewart cited with joining Ford to “get out of the shadows” of Hendrick, Chevy’s top dog.

–Blending personalities: It’s well documented that SHR has a combustible blend of driving personalities. Though the addition of more easygoing Clint Bowyer in place of the oft-mercurial Stewart could mean fewer sparks, the ingredients seem ripe for some conflict (recall that Kevin Harvick accosted Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson after the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup opener) – and not just on the SHR side.

Consider that Brad Keselowski, who began driving full-time in 2010 when Penske was the lone Dodge, has hardly any experience with competing against a championship-contending team under the same manufacturer umbrella. The 2012 champion’s strength is being strong-willed, and it’ll bear watching if he views the SHR drivers as newfound allies or treats them the same.

 –Whither Roush: Ford Performance Global Director Dave Pericak said there will be no reduction in support for any of its current teams, but the stakes remain high for Roush Fenway Racing. Irrespective of Wednesday’s bombshell, the pressure remains on the three-car team to recapture its championship glory from a decade ago.

If Roush struggles to qualify a car for the playoffs for the second consecutive season with Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., it could threaten the sustainability of its Ford support.

Team owner and namesake Jack Roush is a lifelong Ford man. If the team were forced into weighing a manufacturer switch to ensure viability, Toyota wouldn’t be an option given the bellicose barbs he’s tossed at the Japanese automaker in the past. Would Chevrolet offer a potential lifeline, and if so, would the team consider it?