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Voice of Vito: Ford Teetering on the Brink of Success – & Irrelevancy – in NASCAR

Found On Road Dead. Fix Or Repair Daily. F**** Over Rebuilt Dodge.

If you happen to be a Chevrolet or Mopar fan, you have likely hurled these insults at your fellow Ford friends more than once. I should know – I have been on the receiving end of them plenty of times, having driven performance-oriented Blue Oval products for the better part of 15 years. Then again, this needling was also from those who identified my ‘Cuda as a Dodge – even though it said “by: Plymouth” on the tail panel – so consider the source.

But in NASCAR, those critics own a little extra ammo these days. So take this following comment with a grain of salt, Fusion fans, and don’t put your fist through your monitor:

Ford is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy in NASCAR.

I know what you’re saying – they’ve won two of the last six Nationwide races, Greg Biffle was in shouting distance of the win at Indianapolis while Carl Edwards came home second, the fastest car at the end of the Chicagoland race two weeks prior. I’m not disputing any of those things; but what I am going to argue is Ford’s collective situation could become much more complex heading into the Chase, as well as 2011 and beyond.

A quick look down the standings shows three Fords currently inside the top 12: Matt Kenseth in eighth, Edwards in 10th and Biffle in 11th. Biffle is only 78 points to the good of Mark Martin in 13th, while Edwards is only one bad race or two away from tumbling down near Ryan Newman territory in 15th. Kenseth started the year off quite consistently, but since booting interim crew chief Todd Parrott following the event at Infineon Raceway this June, his performance has degenerated to the point where the No. 17 is a top-15 car – nothing more.

Ford has shown flashes of brilliance in recent weeks, with Kasey Kahne’s runner-up performance at Michigan last month joining Edwards and Biffle’s aforementioned strong showings. Also evident, however, have been the teething problems with the FR9 experienced by Biffle in the Windy City, inconsistencies with being fast off the truck on Friday, and the specter that remains of Brad Keselowski, should be find himself in a racing situation with the No. 99.

Yeah, I know he said he didn’t want to be put in a position to retaliate; but sometimes things happen. Splitters cut down tires and pit road gets really narrow at times as well. I’m just sayin’.

Perhaps the biggest sword looming over the Ford camp, though, is the future of the team that in no small part has been the key to Roush Fenway’s resurgence. Doubling as the saving grace of Ford’s involvement in Sprint Cup just six months earlier, Richard Petty Motorsports now finds itself quietly limping towards life support.

Created from the ashes of what was Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and Yates Racing, RPM helped remedy the handling woes that were being felt throughout the Roush camp, due in part to data acquisition issues and faulty simulator setups. The Roush Fenway teams of late have begun incorporating front suspension geometry and chassis setups from RPM, ones that have seen their drivers Kahne and AJ Allmendinger carrying the banner for FoMoCo in recent weeks.

Without the help of their brothers-in-arms, they would likely still be floundering around in the teens, talking a good game about their new engine but having little to show for it.

The recent performance of RPM’s No. 9 Budweiser Ford gives pause for reflection on this question: Should Kahne really be in that big of a hurry to jump in the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports?

That has also become the main point of contention for Ford. With Kahne’s departure from RPM, and with him the likely loss of Budweiser as a sponsor, RPM has lost its marquee attraction which has kept it afloat for this long. Between Kahne’s Budweiser sponsorship vacating the premises and Paul Menard – with his last name on the flanks of the No. 98 – potentially bailing as well, they can only rotate those Valvoline, Stanley and Best Buy sponsorships around so many times to pick up the slack with Allmendinger or Elliott Sadler.

And that’s if Sadler even returns; he pretty much pursued litigation to keep his seat this season and was rumored to be on the move again next year.

The financial solvency of RPM was in question before the season ever started, and was further complicated by a reluctant Kahne sounding nonplussed regarding another stint behind the wheel there. The lynchpin in Petty’s plans for 2011 right now appears to be Allmendinger, who has begun to show a consistency and comfort level in these cars that has come with finally being able to run an entire season – something he was never able to do as the second Red Bull Racing entry in 2007 and ’08.

Should Allmendinger remain in the fold, Menard likely will as well. They would be the two big hitters at RPM, with Marcos Ambrose rumored to be coming on board as Kahne’s replacement next season.

That is, of course, if the organization is able to retain those two drivers in the first place. Allmendinger has been beating down the bushes, reportedly speaking with Penske Racing as another troubled brand, Dodge, looks to expand its ranks.

As for Menard, he may have the inside track for Richard Childress Racing’s rumored return to a four-car effort – as well as Kevin Harvick assuming Kahne’s Budweiser sponsorship. With Harvick leading the Sprint Cup points standings, as well as Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer running in the top 10 on a weekly basis, RCR expanding to a four-car team could potentially give it that last little boost needed to propel them to the level of perpetual contender.

RCR appears tantalizingly close to reclaiming the former glory it once enjoyed, peaking from the mid-1980s through Dale Earnhardt’s untimely passing in 2001.

So should the unthinkable happen and RPM crumble completely, NASCAR would be faced with fielding four more cars for each race, further expanding the repeated problem of start-and-park entries. What’s worse, it would leave Ford with only four full-time teams (excluding the underdog cars at Front Row Motorsports) – those run exclusively by Roush Fenway Racing.

It is a bit of a contradiction for the Blue Oval crowd, to say the least. The most successful U.S. automaker, which posted impressive quarterly profits in 2010, and who proudly took no government assistance (i.e., went belly up) during the economic downturn of 2009, is now facing the prospect of losing an entire racing operation on the side.

The irony of Richard Petty fading away from the series with Ford, due to Dodge snapping up his key driver, should be lost on no one, either. After all, it was Ford that courted Petty away from Chrysler for the 1969 season – and Plymouth that built the Superbird with the express intent of getting Petty back into a Pentastar for 1970.

Sure, the Wood Brothers will remain by running a limited schedule, while Kevin Conway and Travis Kvapil in their respective Bob Jenkins-owned entries can persevere to a respectable result once attrition decimates most of the field. But without another full-time team bringing something else to the table, such as RPM, Ford faces the ugly problem going forward of putting all of their eggs in one basket. That’s never a good thing for any business or operation – particularly one with the unique racing dynamics of NASCAR.

So Ford would do well to start courting some new race teams to help plug the holes that may be created at Richard Petty Motorsports next season. Only then could they stand a chance at returning Ford’s other well-known acronym to prominence among hot rodders, gearheads and other racing types: Fastest On Race Day.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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