For the past two seasons Chevrolet and Toyota have been dominating the Sprint Cup Series, leaving Ford sitting on the sidelines waiting for its return to prominence. After Carl Edwards’s bid to knock Jimmie Johnson from his championship throne in 2008, no Ford driver has come close to scoring the driver championship, while the blue ovals have taken a back seat in the manufacturer title race, as they’ve watched Chevy and Toyota battle it out each year.
Yet, at the end of the 2010 season, things started to turn around. The long-developed FR9 engine was put into practice and as the Chase wound down, the Fords heated up. Greg Biffle captured the third Chase race in Kansas and Edwards swept the final two weekends of the year. Ford was back on an upswing.
Coming into 2011, the talk at Daytona centered primarily on the Chevy engines built by Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt Childress Racing, and the power they were producing. That talk was not unwarranted either. Hendrick swept the front row in Daytona 500 qualifying and the ECR engines under the hood of the Richard Childress Racing teammates were among the best in the two-car draft. Not garnering much attention, the Fords were laying in the weeds, knowing what it would take to be successful for 500 miles – a cool engine and a strong pusher.
When young Trevor Bayne shocked the world by winning the Daytona 500, he did it with a Ford FR9 engine under the hood. In fact, Bayne’s No. 21 Ford Fusion held off Edwards’s No. 99 Ford and David Gilliland’s No. 38 Ford, making it a 1-2-3 sweep for the blue ovals.
“Doug Yates and those guys build great engines,” Edwards said following Sunday’s race (Feb. 20). “I think that they had been doing a great job with the old engine. Now we have this new engine, we may have a lot to look forward to. That was a really good day for the engine. I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but I’m really excited to run that engine for the whole year.”
Last season, Ford struggled to seal the deal and find victory lane for much of the year. Recording a total of 32 top-10 finishes, its first win of the season did not come until the 21st race of the year at Pocono, where Biffle scored the victory. As the season closed out, Ford recorded eight top 10s in the final 10 races, also scoring three wins between Biffle and Edwards. Despite the upswing, Ford again finished a distant third to Chevrolet and Toyota in the manufacturers’ battle.
However, an important milestone had been reached. After a long and somewhat painstaking process, estimated at $15-$20 million, the new FR9 engine was introduced starting with the July race in Daytona. The first purpose-built racing motor developed by Roush Yates Engines, the new motor began showing results immediately.
Edwards was runner up with the new motor in Chicagoland, Biffle came up just short at Indianapolis, then scored the win at Pocono with Edwards behind in third, and the pair finished third and fourth two races later in Ford’s backyard at the Michigan International Speedway.
“That FR9 has helped us more than I thought it was going to, honestly,” Edwards said prior to the following week’s race in Bristol – where three Fords finished in the top 10. “Our old engine was pretty good, but this one is pretty spectacular. Someone sent me a text the other day showing the points, and I didn’t know we had scored so many points the last six races. It’s only six races and it’s in the middle of the season, but that’s a championship-caliber run right there, so if we can just keep this up and keep going forward, that will be good.
“I’m proud of my guys. You all know how much we’ve struggled and to have all of our cars – Greg’s car, Matt [Kenseth’s] car, my car – for really all of them to be as fast as they’ve been, that feels good. I hope we can keep it going.”
Not only did they keep it going, they stepped up the program to the next level. In the final 10 races, Ford drivers recorded three wins, 25 top 10s and 10 front-row starts. Edwards swept the final two weekends of the year and now the blue ovals swept the top-three spots in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I think we’ve got a lot of positive things going on, a lot of ’em,” Edwards added. “Our performances have been good. We got a win, a win and a second. That’s a pretty good streak to be on. You never know what’s going to happen. But a couple tracks coming up are really good for us. I feel really good about it. I think Ford’s in a great spot.
“A win at the Daytona 500 for Ford, for Doug Yates, for all of us is huge. This season picked up right now so far right where we left off and I’m having fun.”
What will be important to watch, though, is whether the Fords can sustain their strength throughout the entire 36-race stretch. In 2009, Ford was coming off their strong run at the end of the previous year and captured the first two races of the ’09 season with Kenseth winning the Daytona 500 and the following week’s race at the Auto Club Speedway.
After that, however, Fords were shut out of victory lane until Jamie McMurray won the November Talladega race – 31 races later. That year, even the much more limited Dodge program had more wins over the season and nearly topped Ford in the manufacturers’ battle for third, behind Chevrolet and Toyota.
As true as it is that Daytona is its own beast and not a great judge for how the rest of the year will turn out, it seems Ford’s success not only in this season’s opening weekend, but the overall success with the FR9 engine has the manufacturer with 600 Sprint Cup Series victories once again pointed in the right direction. Now, topping Chevrolet – who has won eight consecutive manufacturer championships – may be another thing, but it was a good first showing.
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