Ford looks to party in Indianapolis like it’s 1999

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once a happy place for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.

In the early years of the Brickyard 400, the blue oval was a regular presence in Victory Lane at 2.5-mile track, winning three of four races thanks to Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Ricky Rudd (1997).

Then the turn of the century happened.

Ford has gone winless in one of NASCAR’s biggest races in the 18 years since Jarrett last kissed the bricks (a tradition Jarrett started in 1996).

Since then, the full-time Cup careers of Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have come and gone and Tony Stewart won all 49 of his Cup races.

In that time, four other manufacturers have triumphed in Indy, with Chevrolet running away with 14 victories over Toyota (two) and the departed Dodge and Pontiac, who claimed one win each.

But entering the 25th annual Brickyard 400 this weekend (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), Ford is in a fairly happy place.

The manufacturer is coming off a win in the Southern 500 with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, the team’s first Darlington Raceway victory since 1975.

Ford now has 12 wins through the season’s first 25 races. At this point in 2017 it had eight of an eventual 10 wins. In 2016, it had six of eight victories. In 2015, they had four of seven wins.

Entering the regular-season finale, the first time Indianapolis has hosted it, Ford’s dominance has been centered on one team: Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car team has 10 of the 12 wins, with Penske claiming the other two through Keselowski and Joey Logano (Talladega). Kevin Harvick has a series-leading seven wins.

But every current Ford team is looking for their first Brickyard win for the manufacturer.

Though Penske is the king of Indy in open-wheel racing, it has proved to be one of its worst tracks in NASCAR.

In 51 combined starts, Penske has 10 top fives, its fourth fewest on Cup’s active tracks. Its 20 top 10s are its third fewest. Its 316 laps led are only ahead of its totals at Watkins Glen (230) and Sonoma (273).

But like Ford’s improved overall success in the last three seasons, Penske has gained ground at Indy.

Logano has three top fives in his last four starts at Indy. Keselowski earned his first in eight starts last year with a runner-up finish in a race marred by late wrecks.

Stewart-Haas Racing has an Indy win, but that came in 2013 with Ryan Newman driving a Chevrolet. The team transitioned to Ford in 2017.

In 27 combined starts, SHR has five top fives (second fewest), 11 top 10s (third fewest) and 144 laps led, ahead of only its Watkins Glen total (78 laps).

Since joining SHR the year after Newman’s Brickyard win, Kevin Harvick has been the team’s leader at the track. He has four top 10s and one top five in his four starts.

Ford’s other major team is Roush Fenway Racing.

In 93 combined starts, the team has earned 16 top fives (fourth fewest), 30 top 10s (fourth fewest) and led 173 laps, which is only better than its total at Kentucky (38 laps).

Roush hasn’t placed in the top five at Indy since 2012 with Greg Biffle (third).

Matt Kenseth, who is competing part-time this year for Roush, will make his 19th Brickyard 400 start.

He has three runner-up results at IMS (2003, 2006, 2016) and has placed seventh or better in his last five starts there. Those starts came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no other track we go to that compares to Indy,” Kenseth said in a press release. “It’s two-and-a-half miles, but it’s one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and it has such long straightaways that you’re carrying a lot of speed going into those flat turns. It’s also pretty narrow and you need to find ways to get track position, because there’s just not a lot of room to pass.”

Kenseth’s first Indy start came in 2000, the year after Jarrett delivered Ford its last Brickyard win.

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Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick optimistic about prospects of Mustang in Cup

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The question came quickly after Ford revealed its Mustang model for Cup competition Thursday: How would Ford avoid the slow starts that resulted from NASCAR’s previous model changes for Toyota in 2017 and Chevrolet this year?

After Toyota went to the new Camry model last year, Joe Gibbs Racing failed to visit Victory Lane in the first 18 races. Meanwhile, eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. won three times in that span in his Toyota. JGR ultimately won eight races in 2017.

Last weekend’s win by Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen was just the second in 22 races for Chevrolet with its new Camaro model. The first was in the Daytona 500 with Austin Dillon.

“I don’t think with either of those two cases it’s been the car,” Brad Keselowski said after the Mustang announcement at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. “I think there’s been other issues. That’s the thing about this sport. The car is super important but it’s not the only piece. You have the weekend execution, you have the driver piece, the pit crew piece. All those things have to come together and I don’t think in those two scenarios it was the car that held them back. I don’t think it will for us either.”

The Team Penske driver said Ford has learned “a lot” from what Toyota and Chevy went through.

“I think you learn as much from how others have done it as you learn from NASCAR and how they go about the process … and learn where the opportunities are,” Keselowski said.

Any misgivings Kevin Harvick has about the new model are tempered by what Stewart-Haas Racing experienced in 2017 when it switched to Ford from Chevy.

“I think the strongest part of our company is the aero side of things,” Harvick said. “In my opinion, switching from one manufacturer to another is way more challenging. Having all the teams and the people involved in the process of designing the car obviously gives you some characteristics of how the car works, what it likes, what it doesn’t like and things like that.

“As a team and as a group, Ford wouldn’t be making a change if we didn’t think there was more potential to be better.”

“I don’t have any reservations about it,” said SHR co-owner Tony Stewart about the move to the Mustang.

One question that hasn’t been answered is what rules package Cup teams will have next year.

“I think it would be foolish for me to stand here and say I’m 100 percent certain it’s going to go well, because you never know where things are going to be and apparently don’t know where there rules are going to be,” Harvick said.

NASCAR sent a proposed rules package to teams last week. Teams are reviewing it and then will get back with officials to discuss.

NASCAR has stated that it plans to use a package similar to the one used in the All-Star Race next year. The All-Star package included a restrictor plate, air ducts, a taller spoiler and the 2014 style splitter.

In the rules package sent to teams it included horsepower targets based on open throttle time and what plate sizes would be needed.

People who saw the rules proposal last week told NBC Sports it didn’t state how many races it would be used in.

“If we end up going with the All-Star package, it’s a real dart board,” Keselowski said. “Because none of the cars have been tested under that configuration. I have no idea how we’ll be competitively. But if we go or stick with a package similar to what we have right now, I expect this race car to be extremely competitive and a pretty big advancement from where we’re at right now with the Fusion.”

Of the wait for the package to be confirmed, Stewart said “It’s always been that way.

“You act like this is something new. This is their MO. This is not something we’re not used to.”

Dustin Long and Nate Ryan contributed to this report

Ford unveils Mustang for Cup competition in 2019

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Ford revealed the Mustang model that it will debut in the Cup Series next year during a ceremony Thursday at the Ford Motor Company World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

The announcement had all 13 Ford Cup drivers in attendance. Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart drove a version of the Mustang onto a stage at the announcement.

The Mustang makes the move to the Cup Series after being raced full-time in the Xfinity Series since 2011. It joins Chevrolet’s Camaro, which debuted this season, and the Toyota Camry.

The Mustang – which debuted in 1964 – is the longest running model for Ford. The 10 millionth Mustang rolled off the production line on Wednesday.

“Mustang has raced since it was first sold in 1964,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s executive vice president of product development and purchasing, in a press release. “After more than a half-century, it feels great to finally let Mustang run in the top echelon of America’s most popular stock car racing series.”

The Mustang first competed in 1964, when it won the Tour de France Automobile, a 4,000 mile, 10-day rally. It has also raced in SCCA Trans-Am, IMSA, NHRA and Formula Drift.

“We look forward to seeing the Ford Mustang, a cultural icon, on the track in the most competitive series in all of motorsports,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, in a press release. “Our sport eagerly anticipates the performance, style and fanfare the Mustang will bring to the track each weekend beginning at the 2019 Daytona 500.”

Friday 5: A new way of thinking about NASCAR’s future?

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When examining NASCAR’s future are most people looking in the wrong direction?

There are those who say the schedule — 36 points races, two non-points races and the Daytona qualifying races in a 41-week stretch — is too long.

Maybe it’s not enough.

So said Brad Keselowski earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

While some says less is more for the sport, Keselowski suggests that the Cup schedule should have 50-60 races a year and no weekend off in the summer.

His plan is this:

Cup should race on Sundays and the middle of the week from February to early October (instead of ending the season in November). Keselowski also says that no track should host more than one weekend race. So, a track with two dates would get a weekend date and a midweek date.

One thing he notes is that any midweek race should take no more than three hours, meaning a number of races likely would need to be shortened

Keselowski’s idea is a novel concept and presents a new way of thinking when looking ahead in NASCAR. It’s always good to be forced to look at issues in different ways. But there are many challenges to his plan.

One question is what about the costs to teams. It would be easy to see teams saying such a schedule would cost them too much with the additional travel, expenses of preparing cars and repairing cars for example.

“The race teams will adjust, they’ll figure it out,’’ Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Here’s what most people don’t understand. When a car owner complains about money, almost every race team out there has 20 or 30 engineers that don’t build the cars that make good wages and are smart people. What that tells me is they’ve got money and they’re just deciding to allocate it.’’

That might be a harder sell to teams. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and chairman of the Race Team Alliance spoke during All-Star weekend about cost to teams.

“It’s a joint concern, so it will be a joint solution to come up with how it works,’’ Kauffman said of working with NASCAR. “To get something like that in place will require quite a bit of collaboration.’’

Another concern would be tracks. A reason why there hasn’t been a midweek race yet is because a track executive has not volunteered to be the first.

The challenge with a midweek race is that the track likely won’t draw as many fans. Track officials note that they still have a significant percentage attend their races traveling from a few hours or more away. Not as many of those fans would probably make such a trip in the middle of the week. That could be lost income for the tracks.

Those are just among some of the key issues. It is a tangled web of trying to appease, teams, tracks, media partners, sponsors and fans as NASCAR forges ahead.

While there are many challenges to Keselowski’s plan — making it seem unlikely — that doesn’t mean such thinking should be immediately dismissed. Keselowski could be right in that bold thinking is what the sport needs as it looks ahead.

2. Kyle Busch could have company

While Kyle Busch became the first driver to win at every Cup track he’s competed with his Coca-Cola 600 victory, a couple of other drivers are not far behind.

Kevin Harvick has won at all but two tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Kentucky (0 for 7) and Pocono (0 for 34).

Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Chicagoland (0 for 16), Kentucky (0 for 7) and Watkins Glen (0 for 16).

3. Back in the Day

LeBron James made his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance Thursday night. The last time he wasn’t in the NBA Finals was 2010.

That season in NASCAR:

Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a fifth consecutive Cup title.

Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Charlotte fall race.

Denny Hamlin won a series-high eight races.

Kevin Conway was Cup Rookie of the Year.

Joey Logano had just turned 20 years old.

Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series title.

Kyle Busch won 13 of the 29 Xfinity races he started.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was Xfinity Rookie of the Year.

Kyle Larson finished 10th in the Chili Bowl Nationals (Cole Whitt was second to winner Kevin Swindell).

William Byron wouldn’t turn 13 until November of that year.

4. France Family Group adds to portfolio

In a recent SEC filing, International Speedway Corp. stated that the France Family Group owns 74.11 percent of the combined voting power of common stock.

The France Family Group owned 73 percent, according to ISC’s 2016 annual report.

The France Family Group owned 72 percent, according to the ISC’s 2015 annual report.

As a comparison, Bruton Smith and son Marcus own 71 percent of Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s common stock. They owned 70 percent, according to SMI’s 2016 annual report.

5. A year later …

There will be much talk this weekend about how Jimmie Johnson has gone a year — it will be a year on June 4 actually — since his last Cup victory, the longest drought of his career.

But something else to ponder: In the last 36 races (a full season’s worth), Toyota has 19 wins, Ford has 12 and Chevrolet has five.

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Bump & Run: Will Kurt Busch be last driver to do Indy-Charlotte Double?

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Kurt Busch was the last to do the Indy 500-Coke 600 Double in 2014. Will we see a driver run the Double again anytime soon? If so, who might that be?

Kyle Petty: For me, the bigger question is why? Why try it? It’s been done. By multiple drivers with various levels of success. John Andretti for me will always be “The Man” for being the first. Tony Stewart ranks because he truly had a shot at wins in both. Any driver now trying “The Double” could only hope to be a contender in one and a footnote in the other. Both series have upped their game, it would be tougher to win. I’m not saying someone won’t try, but once you’ve watched the same PR stunt three or four times … well, you know.

Nate Ryan: No.

Dustin Long: No. Cup car owners aren’t going to let one of their drivers run in the Indy 500 because so much is tied up in those drivers on the Cup side. Unless an IndyCar driver comes with money, they’re not going to get the chance to run the Coca-Cola 600 because of relative lack of performance from such drivers in NASCAR (Tony Stewart notwithstanding).

Daniel McFadin: Yes, and it will be Kyle Larson. Both he and owner Chip Ganassi have indicated they want it to happen. Someone just needs to cave and say “Let’s do it.”

Dan Beaver: Unless IndyCar moves the race into an earlier, less desirable slot no one is going to be able to do it. But if they do, Kyle Larson is the most obvious pick. His passion for racing in general will eventually get the best of him and get him to test those open wheelers.

Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are among the drivers who have yet to win this season. Who is the next driver to win for the first time this season?

Kyle Petty: Erik Jones … Pocono! That’s just one of those tracks. We’ve seen it with Blaney, Hamlin when he first came into Cup and a few others. It’s so different from everything else that they run that someone with a good team (JGR) and a young driver with talent (Erik) can sneak up on the usual suspects!

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Though he hasn’t been as good at Pocono since the 2012 repave, he could break through Sunday or next weekend at Michigan given that Joe Gibbs Racing has turned the corner.

Dustin Long: Brad Keselowski. Fords will continue to dominate and Keselowski will get a win soon enough.

Daniel McFadin: Denny Hamlin. He has three top fives and one top 10 in the last five races and aside from the threat of speeding penalties, he is the only driver among those listed who has really managed to put together complete races in the last five events. 

Dan Beaver: Denny Hamlin stayed out of trouble last week at Charlotte and earned his fifth top five in the last six races there. Perhaps that means he is returning to predictability on tracks that have been kind to him in the past, so he not only gets the next win, it could happen this weekend at Pocono.

Chevrolet teams did not lead a lap in the Coca-Cola 600 but had four cars finish between fifth and 10th. How do you evaluate where Chevy is at the halfway point of the regular season?

Kyle Petty: For me at this point in the season, the Chevys have made gains but not enough to run as a group and consistently with the Fords and Toyotas. It’s a long season, and I’m sure we’ll see wins this year from Chevy drivers, but as a group, they are third best in class. 

Nate Ryan: Making steady gains but still short of being on the verge of consistently winning. There’s enough promise there to indicate the Camaro could be a factor in the playoffs.

Dustin Long: A step forward but still many steps to take to for Chevy to show it can beat the top Fords and Toyotas straight up.

Daniel McFadin: Since the 2017 regular-season finale, Chevy’s most consistent hope of winning a race has been Kyle Larson. But despite being a front-runner this year, Larson can’t seem to go from green flag to checkered flag without something going wrong. As of now, Chevrolet needs to hope its fortunes take a turn for the best in the second half of the season, like Toyota’s did last year with a new car model.

Dan Beaver: They’re not out of the woods yet, but it finally appeared that the Chevrolet drivers not only finished strong, but ran well as a group throughout the race. They will start to ease their way up the grid and challenge for victories, but it is difficult to imagine they will capture very many wins because Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch will continue to dominate.