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NASCAR 101: 3 Most Surprising Manufacturer Swaps

This week, a big surprise hit the NASCAR world when Legacy Motor Club, the team co-owned by Chevrolet loyalists Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson, announced it would be switching to Toyota in 2024.

The team, which still carries the legendary Petty No. 43 car in its stable, is fresh off of its second rebranding in as many years. Gallagher bought controlling interest of Richard Petty Motorsports following 2021, and then at the end of 2022, Johnson became a major investor of Petty GMS Racing. Richard Petty himself, although a spokesman for the team, does not hold any ownership interest anymore.

But this is not the first big surprise manufacturer change in NASCAR history, not by a longshot. Heck, it’s not even the most surprising one to feature Petty in the picture.

There are a total of three that stand above the rest, three that were big surprises at the time that ended up making huge impacts on the sport in the years to come.

Petty Enterprises from Plymouth to Ford, 1969

Although this move was reversed just a year later, the shock of Petty blue on a Ford was immense to many fans at the time.

The move was Petty’s call. Part of it was the disappointment over Plymouth’s offering of car compared to Ford. Then there was the dump truck of cash Ford backed into the Petty driveway.

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It was a seismic shift for many Ford teams at the time. Holman-Moody, for many years the golden child of the blue oval, was unceremoniously knocked down the pecking order. Petty was the King, after all, and gobbled up a lot of the support Ford had earmarked for NASCAR.

David Pearson, driving for Holman Moody, was able to outduel Petty for the 1969 championship. But the writing was on the wall, in many ways. Ford had a racing budget of $12 million in 1967. For 1970, Ford had a racing budget of just $2 million, per Speed Sport.

Petty went back to Plymouth and its shiny new Superbird the next year, creating one of the most iconic driver-car pairings in NASCAR history. Holman-Moody became a shell of itself before pulling out of racing in 1973, much like Ford itself had after the 1970 season.

For many years, the way NASCAR worked was that car manufacturers would employ a contractor team, either officially (Chrysler, Hudson, Ford) or unofficially (General Motors was long rumored to be slipping money to owners such as Smokey Yunick and Ray Fox for big races).

The manufacturers would pour money into the teams and would collaborate with them to make parts, with the top teams serving as vendors for much smaller teams. The drivers would be paid a salary and given a sizable percentage of the purse, while the smaller teams — the strokers — would have to nickel-and-dime their way to get on track.

This financial system essentially dried up in 1970, to the point where Ford owner Junior Johnson announced he was shutting his team down early in the season. About a week later, Johnson got a now-famous phone call from the RJ Reynolds company, who wanted to sponsor his race team.

Not only did Johnson change history forever by telling the Winston people to call Bill France, but it also signified how teams would be financed going forward. Even today, teams still say a majority of their funding comes from outside sponsorship.

Joe Gibbs Racing from Chevrolet to Toyota, 2008

Joe Gibbs Racing had been a loyal ally of GM from the very start in 1992. The team fielded Pontiacs for 11 years before switching to Chevrolet for the five years afterward.

But it was clear that JGR was always going to play at best second fiddle at Chevrolet. Hendrick Motorsports was and is still the lead Chevy team, and, barring a Roush Fenway Racing-esque fall from grace, will always be. Richard Childress Racing has been the heart of Chevrolet for decades.

Then, figure in Dale Earnhardt, Inc. having an obvious tie to Chevrolet and Ginn Racing being seen (at the time) as the exciting new kid on the block, and JGR definitely seemed to be a bit lost at sea. The team had expanded to three teams in 2005, but had only one make the playoffs in both 2005 (though Tony Stewart won the championship) and 2006.

At the same time, Toyota had infamously bungled its debut season in 2007. Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Red Bull Racing could barely even qualify for the race half the time. MWR, thought to be the lead Toyota team, was a disaster between jet fuel, an ancient Dale Jarrett missing races and the team owner running into (away?) from legal trouble.

The two sinking ships found each other in the night, and instead of passing each other, elevated themselves back up together. JGR became the face of Toyota in NASCAR, something it still is 15 years after the fact.

Kyle Busch, who signed on to drive for JGR in 2008, became one of the biggest names in NASCAR overnight. That year, Busch won 21 races between Cup, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

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This was a video game-style run through all three series that nobody had seen before. It set the tone for all three series for the next 15 years and established Toyota as a very real threat to win any race, and eventually any championship, at any time.

Stewart-Haas Racing from Chevrolet to Ford, 2017

This was one of the most shocking moments in my years covering NASCAR.

Stewart had spent the bulk of his NASCAR career driving for GM. In 2008, the then-two-time Cup champion spent a year driving a Toyota for JGR. This led to a big homecoming for Stewart when he moved over to — and took partial ownership of — SHR, a Chevrolet team.

That wasn’t the only bowtie bond within the team. Kevin Harvick had driven for Chevrolet since stepping up to take over Dale Earnhardt’s ride in 2001. Gene Haas had always fielded Hendrick-powered Chevrolets, dating back to the Haas CNC Racing days.

There hadn’t been any hints, any reports, any leaks, anything about a potential change. Harvick had just won the 2014 championship not too long before this. And yet, here it was.

It later came out that a key reason why SHR wanted to be independent of Hendrick was actually relatively simple: It wanted to build its own chassis. Ford, which only had Team Penske to fall back on as Roush Fenway Racing freefell down the grid, needed another big team and got it. SHR got to make its own chassis as part of the deal, as did most of the other Ford teams of the time.

Not much has changed on the outside since that move. Sure, the team hasn’t won a championship, but Harvick strung together a statistically fantastic stretch in the late 2010s, capping it with the best season in average finish in 2020 since Jeff Gordon in 2007.

SHR has hit a snag in the last three years, only winning four races among its four cars. In 2022, with the Next Gen car making its debut, SHR was once again unable to build its own chassis, though neither can the rest of the field.

In 2023, Harvick announced his retirement. Time will tell if this team will rise again, but it’s put itself on the right path. Chase Briscoe looks primed to take Harvick’s spot as lead driver, Aric Almirola is a solid if unspectacular driver, and Ryan Preece still has untapped potential. And who knows, it may even plant themselves a Berry tree soon to to mark their future success.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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Dawg

The one thing that surprises me about Legacy’s coming on board for TRD, is what I read from the head of TRD, when he was talking about wanting to recruit more teams for Toyota.

He said he wasn’t given any more $$, & that funding for new teams would come from cuts to existing teams.

If that’d still the case, then this move is something of a head scratcher.

It’s going to take some time to get used to seeing JJ sporting a Toyota logo.

JT

If Toyota cut funds from other teams to fund LMC, I imagine a good chunk of the money came when Kyle Busch Motorsports left Toyota to go to Chevy. KBM was a Toyota factory team, using sponsors who were Toyota suppliers and used Toyota’s development program drivers, who were paid by the manufacturer. I bet the budget for KBM was not far off the funding it would take to support a smaller Cup team like LMC. While it is true that Toyota is providing some support to David Gilliland’s Tricon truck team, I bet the funding is way less than KBM received.

J.W. Farmer

I believe in specs for competition reasons, but not in the single-supplier model that NASCAR has moved to. It takes away from innovation and creativity in the series and will bleach personality even more. NASCAR should totally get radical and return back to it’s roots of single season champions, no stage racing and manufacturer identity.

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