Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – On the eve of the Daytona 500, Ford team owners representing 10 Daytona 500 victories and five NASCAR championships addressed the racing media to share high expectations for the 2018 season and indulge in a few stories of their considerable time competing in NASCAR’s big leagues.
Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Tony Stewart and Eddie Wood sat alongside Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports to field questions and provide perspective.
“For 2018, there’s been driver lineup changes in a lot of these teams,” Rushbrook said. “I think all strengthening their positions and strengthening the overall Ford lineup, a lot of work with the teams adjusting to some of the rule adjustments, and we’re really looking forward, having worked hard all winter, being back out here and racing in the 500 on Sunday.”
The team owners – all veterans in this sport – were noticeably upbeat about capturing Ford’s first Cup championship in 14 years – since Roush won back-to-back Cup titles with drivers Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch in 2003-04.
And the four men were extremely optimistic about some significant turnover on the teams.
Team Penske added a third car for Ryan Blaney – who won Thursday’s first Daytona 500 qualifying race. Blaney’s seat at Wood Brothers Racing was filled by Paul Menard. And Stewart-Haas Racing added former Daytona summer race winner Aric Almirola to its team, replacing Danica Patrick who is making her final NASCAR start in the 500.
Last season, each of the four teams won races, looking especially strong early with three victories in the first six races including a dramatic last lap Daytona 500 win for Stewart-Haas Racing from veteran Kurt Busch. Blaney finished second but collected his maiden Cup win that summer at Pocono.
The four Ford teams combined for 10 wins on the season and two Ford drivers – SHR’s Kevin Harvick and Penske’s Brad Keselowski – advanced to the Championship 4 finale.
“I know all of our drivers are excited,” Stewart said. “Exactly what Jack and Roger have mentioned, the technology and support that we are getting from Ford is second to none. It makes that side of it a lot easier.
“I know the engine package is something that’s a big box each week that we don’t even worry about and think about because the drivers are happy with their motors, and that lets us focus on other things that really make these cars go fast, and that’s making them turn.
“Getting the handling the way we want it for these guys is a big part of it, and our group has done a really good job over the winter, I think, of trying to find and massage on the things that the drivers were wanting to change between last year and this year.
“So I feel like we’re in good shape and ready to go race.”
Wood agreed about the abundance and quality of resources Ford has provided for preparation. It’s almost become a question of where you will win, not whether you win. A year ago, the Fusions swept the superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega and have won seven straight restrictor plate races going back to May of 2017. Ford won on intermediate and short tracks and hoisted a road course trophy as well in 2017.
“I mean, I go way back, and the resources like that’s available now from just say Ford Performance is just unbelievable, just in the last two or three years,” Wood said.
“You know, when a guy can go in a Tech Center, put on his driving suit, bolt on a helmet and get in a car and it be exactly like where he’s going to race, I mean, you can’t imagine that’s something you would wish for that you wouldn’t think anybody could invent.”
Even expressing great optimism for the 2018 season, the Ford owners were asked about the future – would they be stepping away from the series in an official “retirement” mode anytime soon.
Stewart, at 48, joked that he wasn’t part of that conversation yet. But both Penske and Roush assured the room of reporters that retirement was not on their horizon any time soon. There’s still more races – more Daytona 500s – to win and season championship trophies to hoist.
“I was 46 years old when I started in the Cup Series, 1988, and at that time I said that I wouldn’t want to go out the back door doing this thing, that when I got to where I couldn’t keep up, just shove me over in the ditch and keep on going, and I’m getting close,” Roush joked.
Penske, one of the most successful drivers in all of motorsports with 16 Indianapolis 500 wins in addition to a certain Hall of Fame NASCAR resume, agreed. He has no plans of stepping aside any time soon.
“I think that racing has really been the common thread through our businesses, and as we grow our brand here in the U.S., the racing is certainly a key part of that,” Penske said. “I always say it’s my fishing trip and golf game on weekends to go to the races. I’m planning to be here as long as I can, and we’re going to continue to try to support the sport and the teams and the people.
“I get the biggest probably satisfaction out of seeing the young people that grow up in the organization, people that maybe come to go to work for you. They start polishing wheels of the truck, and the next minute they’re a crew chief or even could be a driver, and I think that’s the great thing about the sport when you look at the garage and you see how many people started here with very little and what they’ve been able to really to bring to the sport, and obviously it’s been the cornerstone of my business for 50 years.”