Did You Notice? … RFK Racing is the only Ford team to advance multiple cars into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoff?
Just 18 months after leaving Team Penske, Brad Keselowski has gone two-for-two in 2023, leading a Roush-backed organization that had never advanced two teams since NASCAR’s elimination-style format began in 2014. It’s the first time they’ve placed even one driver into the Round of 12 since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2017.
On the other end of the Blue Oval garage sits Stewart-Haas Racing, a shell of itself just three years removed from Kevin Harvick’s nine-win season of 2020. This year, the only four-car Ford team failed to advance a single driver into the Round of 12 for the first time ever. SHR remains without a victory, heading toward its first winless season overall since Tony Stewart bought into the organization and left Joe Gibbs Racing after 2008.
It’s clear there’s a changing of the guard at Ford. RFK is on the verge of expansion in 2024, signing Justin Haley into a satellite car at Rick Ware Racing. It’s hard to argue based on recent results RFK has surpassed SHR and moved into the top tier of Ford programs. With Harvick on the verge of retirement at SHR, can its downward trajectory be salvaged going forward?
The answer may need to come through switching manufacturers.
Where did that come from? You might be asking. Let me explain. On the surface, it appears Ford and Chevrolet have a ton more money and room to pump into their NASCAR programs. They have 14 and 16 full-time teams, respectively; Toyota has just six.
But what the Camrys lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. A look at both the playoffs and the Round of 12 this season reveals Toyota’s success during a Next Gen era marked by parity up and down the starting grid.
2023 Cup Series Season
|Manufacturer||Playoff Teams||Full-Time Teams||Pct. To Make Playoffs||Made Round of 12|
Streamlining their support is a strategy Toyota’s pursued since Michael Waltrip Racing closed at the end of the 2015 season. Since then, they’ve had no more than eight full-time teams, putting Joe Gibbs Racing at the top of the hierarchy while saving enough funding for organizations underneath them for the supposed “B” teams to be competitive.
We’ve seen that in 2023: Hamlin’s 23XI Racing program had a record-setting year in sending both Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick into the Round of 12. Denny Hamlin’s long-term contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and co-ownership of 23XI ensures their position with the manufacturer will only strengthen.
It’s a cohesiveness that no doubt proved attractive to Jimmie Johnson. A driver who knows a thing or two about titles is moving Legacy Motor Club over to Toyota in 2024, boosting the manufacturer’s full-time number back to that magical eight.
Ford and Chevrolet, by comparison, have around double that number of teams. But not all of them are competitive; instead, there’s a hierarchy. Hendrick Motorsports, for example, is clearly the top team within the Bowtie Brigade, earning a record-setting nine championships during NASCAR’s playoff era alone.
Since SHR left Chevy for Ford at the end of the 2016 season, whomever the B team is at Chevrolet appears to fluctuate based on the year. Richard Childress Racing and Trackhouse Racing are battling for that position right now, each employing an aggressive lead driver in Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain, respectively.
Trackhouse’s recent moves to sign Shane van Gisbergen and put Zane Smith in a satellite Spire Motorsports car in 2024 put them in a strong position for the long-term; still, their development remains an open question. Trackhouse has just two more victories this year than all of SHR.
After that … there’s quite a gap in performance. No other Chevy team is inside the top 10 in points, and there’s a funding disparity for some of the other teams under their umbrella like Spire, Kaulig Racing and single-car JTG Daugherty Racing. It means only eight or so full-time teams within Chevy are capable of running at a high level.
Does that number sound familiar?
Let’s move on over to Ford. Roger Penske has been the dominant force since moving over from Dodge in 2013, earning two championships and expanding into a three-car program. Team Penske is the only Ford team to win a title since 2005 (remember, both of SHR’s two titles were won with Chevrolet; they didn’t move over until after the 2016 season).
Behind Penske, RFK is now positioning itself as that solid number two. Keselowski is the youngest owner in the group, at age 39, and has big plans to grow into the powerhouse operation SHR used to be. Remember, Ford’s engines also come directly from Roush, an important tie-in that leaves RFK at the epicenter of future plans.
Let’s say RFK turns the RWR partnership into a third full-time team by 2025. You also have underfunded Front Row Motorsports in its best position in years, earning as many playoff spots with its program (one) as SHR. If RFK and Penske continue to be well aligned, eventually wrapping expansion and the Penske-ish Wood Brothers Racing into their program, plus FRM maintains improvement, you hit that core number of eight-to-nine that can form a manufacturer’s top tier.
Is there room for Stewart-Haas Racing to compete for championships within that alignment?
As is the case with any struggling organization, there’s a financial cost involved in rebuilding. You need to go out and hire top talent; you need to spend time in the wind tunnel, on the simulator and fundraising for sponsorship. That’s where Ford may need to pony up a little extra cash to really revitalize SHR.
Busch Light has already left the organization, and multiple sources have put Mahindra Tractors’ future in question. It also appears clear that if Aric Almirola retires, full-time backer Smithfield will leave along with him. That’s tens of millions of dollars Haas and Stewart will need to cover with their own money, burning through cash unless a charter sale or manufacturer support bail them out.
So if SHR is seeking a reset, repositioning itself within the NASCAR hierarchy while limiting financial fallout, considering a move to Chevy makes sense. It’s the only other Chevy team besides HMS in the past 17 years to win a title (Stewart in 2011, Harvick in 2014) before its switch to Ford. SHR once worked hand-in-hand with Hendrick and could utilize their on- and off-track connections to rebuild.
Harvick’s replacement Josh Berry already has driven most of 2023 in Chevy equipment, subbing for Chase Elliott in Hendrick’s Nos. 9 and 48 and at Legacy. Berry’s also built his resume running Chevys for JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Will it happen? We’ll have to wait and see. Their organization is the last major Silly Season piece remaining. But there’s no question after Harvick’s dismal 29th at Bristol Motor Speedway, five laps off the pace, that SHR has hit rock bottom. At a track Harvick won just three years ago, at an oval he had 12 top-15 finishes in 13 starts, the No. 4 couldn’t even keep up with J.J. Yeley.
Who does Yeley drive for? That same RWR organization that switched from an SHR alliance to RFK following the 2022 season. It seems like they knew which way the wind was blowing.
It’s up to SHR to figure out how to change it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- Ty Gibbs has developed nicely during his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing. After leading 102 laps at Bristol, he now has three top-five finishes and has the inside track to finish “best of the rest,” sitting 17th in the standings by 17 points over Chase Elliott. Don’t be surprised if he breaks through with a surprise win on an intermediate (Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway) before the end of the year.
- Matt DiBenedetto left his Rackley W.A.R. Craftsman Truck Series ride to go a different direction in 2024. You just wonder if he left behind the best option available after winning a race last year and making the playoffs in that truck the past two years. Most of the top-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series rides have already been claimed and one of the best Truck options, GMS Racing, is closing its doors at the end of 2023. Perhaps the Front Row Truck ride is an option? That would potentially offer a path back to Cup long-term. Otherwise, you wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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