Teams must balance competition, cooperation as Ford heavyweights
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brad Keselowski was just beginning to make his first starts at NASCAR’s national level. Roush Racing, still three years from partnering with the Fenway Sports Group, was coming off a first championship in the NASCAR Sprint (then NEXTEL) Cup Series.
The NASCAR landscape was very different in 2004, but there’s one clear connection between then and now. That season was the last time Jack Roush’s organization received any serious title competition from a team within its own manufacturer -- something almost certain to occur again this year, now that reigning titlist Keselowski and his Penske Racing operation have made the switch to Ford.
It all raises the question of how much collaboration will take place between two organizations accustomed to being the largest planets in their respective solar systems. During Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, it seemed clear the line between competition and cooperation was still being figured out.
Sprint Cup Series testing
“Those things are being defined daily as far as what is OK to share and what is not,” Keselowski said. “I don’t have great answers for you there, but we all agree that it is better for us to get beat by another Ford than to watch us be the best Ford but not be the fastest car on the track. I would rather get beat by another Ford and run second or third than run 17th and be the best Ford. In order for that to work out there has to be a level of cooperation, and I think we all see that. It is just a matter of defining what that level is.”
On both sides, it’s a new experience. For the past three years, Penske had been the lone Dodge entry on the circuit, benefitting from knowledge it didn’t have to share with anyone else. Roush has been the primary supplier of chassis to other Ford operations, which -- while capable of winning races -- were never a threat to the title. The last Ford team other than Roush to finish in the top 10 in final points was Yates Racing in 2004, winning a race at Texas and placing ninth with Elliott Sadler behind the wheel.
Today, Roush and Yates jointly operate an engine-building company that supplies all Ford teams -- including, now, Penske. These seemingly strange bedfellows first sat down across from one another during the development of Ford’s new Generation-6 car, which both Roush and Penske played a role in. That experience provided a get-to-know-you platform outside of any competitive arena, fostering a working relationship that might have been much more difficult to develop had both sides been thrown together at the race track.
“There’s no substitute for knowing the names and faces, sitting down at a table with somebody,” said Travis Geisler, Penske’s competition director. “I’ve got their cell numbers in my phone, and they have mine, and when I call them, they answer. You learn how to not step on each others’ toes but be honest, and those things are difficult to do when it’s 100 percent competitive.”
It helps, Geisler adds, that Roush has experience working with other teams through its business relationships, and that there are some people who have worked for both organizations. The hope is that the collaboration during the new car development will carry over to race weekends and make both sides more comfortable with the idea of sharing information with one another. According to Carl Edwards, everyone involved stands to gain from the cooperation.
“I hope we can share information. It would help us a lot,” said the Roush driver, who missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2012. “The way that Brad ran at the end of last year, that was spectacular, and at the end of the day I hope we have something to give them so that they will reciprocate. The more teams you have working together, the more information you have and more ideas you have and it makes things better.”
Added Geisler: “I look at it, it’s like the Allied front in (World War II). OK, we’re different, but we’re still trying to shoot the same guys. We can line up the common goal of beating everybody else. We still want to beat each other, but I think we know it’s important to Ford to share and work together. You look at all the Chevy camps that are out there, the manufacturer’s title is something that needs to be won by Ford. That’s something we want to do, and the only way we’ll accomplish that is if all the Fords are running well.”
Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing -- whose stable also includes Richard Petty Motorsports, the Wood Brothers, Germain Racing and Front Row Motorsports -- said sharing a common engine manufacturer will lead to natural areas of cooperation, as will technologies being developed with the intent of improving the fleet as whole. But in the end, the goal of both Penske and Roush is to beat one another, despite the common logo on the nose of their cars.
“We also recognize these are racing organizations and each is striving for the same goal, which is to go and win races,” Allison said. “That is the main goal that we, and all Ford fans, have in common.”
Toward that end, not all doors will be open. Geisler expects Roush and Penske drivers to work better together on the race track, and said the two teams may strategize over big-picture ideas that each organization might not have the resources to pull off on its own. But when it comes to hard data, such as numbers from the race car or chassis development, Penske draws a line.
“That stays with our crew chiefs and with our drivers,” Geisler said. “In my opinion, those are trade secrets of those guys who work very hard in giving themselves an advantage. It wouldn’t be fair to us to publicize how Brad’s driving. I think those are things that separate them from a crowd of crew chiefs, from a crowd of race engineers, and we need to respect where they stand as individuals in this sport.”
Of course, if one side asks, who knows what may be the outcome. After all, it is a new spirit of cooperation between two of NASCAR’s top teams -- to a point, at least. “All of us will decide whether there’s an answer given or not,” Geisler said. “That will be on a case-by-case basis. But there’s no harm in asking.”