Ford closing in on rare NASCAR Cup championships

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Joey Logano

Detroit — NASCAR calls it Ford Championship Weekend because the Ford Motor Company sponsors the annual, final, climactic weekend of the season at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This year, it might be Ford’s weekend for other reasons.

A significant chance for unusual success for Ford is rooted in a four-year-old initiative in which the company refocused on racing.

There have been a lot of big racing moments around the world for the automaker since founder Henry raced his two-speed, two-cylinder Quadricycle — arguably the original “package” — at 20 mph.

But, this weekend, Ford is poised to win two historic championships.

With 18 wins this season, to 13 for Toyota and four for Chevy, Ford has a prohibitive lead for its first manufacturers’ championship in 16 years.

And, either Kevin Harvick or Team Penske driver Joey Logano could be the first Cup winner driving a Ford in 14 years since Kurt Busch won for Jack Roush in 2004.

Logano and Harvick are competing with the defending champion Martin Truex Jr. (Toyota) and Kyle Busch (Toyota), the final four, for the drivers’ championship.

From the assembly lines to the board rooms, many Ford employees are either headed to Florida or gearing up to watch the Ford Eco Boost 400 at 3 p.m. Sunday on NBC.

'A lot of passion'

The 45 engineers in Ford Performance Motorsports, the high-performance division that helps prepare racing vehicles for nine series across the globe, and the 10-15 employees of the global motorsports marketing team, are feeling emotions rise, their boss Mark Rushbrook said.

Senior management will attend the race, including most of the executive motorsports steering committee and the motorsports government board, with representatives from product development, marketing communication and the various regions.

“There’s a lot of passion, for sure,” said Rushbrook, the global director of Ford Performance Motorsports.

Kevin Harvick

“I know there’s a lot of Ford employees who are going to the races this weekend, not officially as part of Ford but because of their passion for racing.

“So, we’ll have a lot of the Ford family there in the stands with us, on pit road with us,” he said.

“Definitely looking forward to celebrating with them after the race and coming back to Dearborn to share what is a point of pride for our employees.

“Edsel Ford sent a text message to me after the previous race in Phoenix,” Rushbrook said of the great-grandson of the automobile pioneer who raced in Grosse Pointe on Oct. 10, 1901, using the winnings from driving a car called Sweepstakes to help finance his company.

“He said, `Homestead is going to be terrifically exciting.’ That means a lot to all of us.”

The opportunity for such great success has parents throughout the company, along with Team Penske and the Stewart-Haas Racing team, for which Harvick drives.

But the moment of birth may well have been a meeting in 2014.

“It definitely was a conscious decision and a long-term plan to get to where we are today,” Rushbrook said.

“There was a team meeting with senior management back in mid- to late-2014, and there was a decision that, hey, given what our company is, an auto company with the history of Henry Ford winning the race with Sweepstakes and forming the company, we needed to be in motor sports.

“But, it’s to the point of pride that we didn’t just want to be in motor sports, we didn’t just want to be a participant, we wanted to win races and win championships.”

Team effort

It began a process, especially in the highly-competitive NASCAR series, of making sure all of the work of the company involving motor sport pointed to winning, Rushbrook said.

“You can’t just be strong in one area and succeed, you’ve got to be strong in every area of performance on the car, including the engine, the driveline, the body, the chassis, the vehicle dynamics simulation, the tire modelling. All that has to be right, and at the highest level.

“And, if you’re missing on any of those, you’re just not going to win,” he said.

“We needed to leverage our technical tools, which at that point had not been fully leveraged, or recently leveraged, in racing.

“We started growing our technical team inside of Ford to make all of those tools even better, to improve our vehicle dynamic simulation, to work with Roush-Yates on the engine program to take it to a higher level.”

The work brings Ford to the lip of the cup of major success Sunday.

“I feel like we have really whittled this down to the best four teams, the best four drivers for this season, and there’s not really an underdog in this group,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said during a conference call.

“But there’s not a favorite, either. All these guys sort of measure up, and I can see either one of them winning this championship.”

With Busch, Harvick and Truex dominating much of the season, Logano joked Thursday in Miami Beach that it felt like, “The Big Three, and me.”

 “We've been able to overcome a lot this season and build a lot of momentum,” Logano said. “We have an amazing playoff up to this point, scoring a lot of points, leading a lot of laps, especially the last few weeks.

“I feel like our team's in a great spot.

“Our pit stops have been amazing lately. The confidence is in not only myself as a driver, but in our whole race team all the way through all of Team Penske,” he said.

“So, we're ready to get to Sunday and see what happens.”

Final lap

What: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Drivers: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano

When: Sunday, 3 p.m.

Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway