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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series


Melding Team Penske and SHR forges a stronger Ford

Clint Bowyer

RELATED: Race recap | Results | Standings

 

It isn't unprecedented, but it is impressive.

 

For the first time since 2009, and only the second since 1992, Ford teams have won the season's first two races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

 

Meanwhile, six of the top 10 drivers in the point standings come from the Ford camp and this year's two winners -- Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski -- have put themselves squarely in line for the season-ending 10-race playoffs.

 

Granted, winning early and often isn't unusual -- Chevrolet teams won the first three races of the 2010 season and a whopping 13 of 14 out of the gate in '07.

 

Three of the past five seasons have seen a more balanced beginning with each of the three manufacturers -- Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota -- winning one of the first three races in various orders.

 

It's ridiculously early to be calling anything a trend. The two season-opening Ford wins in '09 didn't portend of great things for the company that year -- only one more win came its way the remainder of the season. But the past year or so has provided much in the way of Ford's renewed commitment to NASCAR as part of the Ford Performance program.

 

Meanwhile, the early returns on the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the fold have been nothing but positive. In addition to Busch's Daytona 500 victory, Kevin Harvick managed everything but collecting the trophy in Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta. Harvick won the first two stages and led all but 33 laps of the 325-lap race. Both Busch and Harvick compete for SHR.

 

Team Penske has shouldered the majority of the workload for Ford in recent seasons while Roush Fenway Racing tries to re-establish itself as a contender. They aren't the only kids on the Ford block, just the two most successful.

 

But with SHR so competitive so soon, it's hard not to notice.

 

"We're racers," Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for SHR, told NASCAR.com. "We're old-school racers. Our guys have worked hard to get everything done; I know everyone says that, but they worked long hours and they did it every day" to complete the switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

 

MORE: Harvick tops Stages 1, 2 | No win, but plenty of success for Harvick

 

SHR fields four cars at NASCAR's top level for drivers Harvick, Busch, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick. The organization also added one full-time and one part-time XFINITY Series team this year.

 

More than 100 new employees were added as SHR began building its own chassis and various other machine-shop items. "And anytime you add people, you don't know how long it will take for everyone to get settled and things start to flow," Zipadelli said.

 

Team Penske has ruled the Ford roost from almost the time it left Dodge after a championship season in 2012. The majority of the 14 Ford victories in 2014 came from Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano; the following year all seven Ford victories came from Team Penske; and a year ago it was seven of eight.

 

Close-knit alliances often result in improved results on the track for all parties. Toyota-branded Furniture Row Racing obviously benefited from its association with Joe Gibbs Racing last season and should do so again this year; the SHR/Hendrick pipeline saw two drivers win titles in a three-year period with Harvick in '14 and Jimmie Johnson last season.

 

Team Penske has stayed to itself, going it alone, however.

 

"We pretty much played by ourselves, and I think that that's made us much stronger," said team owner Roger Penske.

 

But he said he realizes the advantages of working alongside a fellow "branded" organization, and SHR has provided that opportunity.

 

"We knew coming in with Stewart‑Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us," Penske said. "In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them. So we know what they have and they know what we have."

 

Seeing an increase in the number of Ford teams running out front and in the top five is a good sign for those organizations. Perhaps the competitive gap has narrowed a bit.

 

"You know how strong the Toyotas have been and the Chevys have been," Penske said. "This gives (Ford teams) at least a chance to say we're on par with these guys. Now, with a couple of wins I'd have to say we might be an inch or two ahead."

 

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