The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season has been a struggle for fans of the Blue Ovals, save for some Chris Buescher heroics to close out the regular season.
To make matters worse, it was announced on Sept. 16 that 2022 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion and current Front Row Motorsports driver Zane Smith would depart Ford in favor of a Chevrolet Cup ride at Spire Motorsports via a technical alliance with Trackhouse Racing Team.
Smith was Ford’s biggest prospect below the Cup Series, and he walked for nothing.
Turnover happens. Free agency deals happen. After all, Smith was a Chevrolet driver with GMS Racing in the 2020 and 2021 Truck Series seasons until FRM picked him up for 2022.
But what makes the deal all the more devastating for Ford is that with Smith gone, Ford has no one left in its developmental pipeline.
Chevrolet and Toyota are chock-full of young and upcoming talent in their Xfinity and Truck entries. JR Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing have been among the biggest proving grounds for Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series, while JGR has served the same role for Toyota.
TRICON Garage has become the new Toyota Racing Development team in the Truck Series now that Kyle Busch has become a Chevy driver, while Chevy has Kyle Busch Motorsports, Niece Motorsports, GMS Racing (until next year) and McAnally-Hilgemann Racing to move drivers up.
What does Ford have? Two SHR cars in Xfinity, one truck at FRM and four trucks at ThorSport Racing.
The problem is that the driver of the FRM truck was the only driver that looked to have the potential of moving up — and now he’s gone.
SHR’s Xfinity team has Cole Custer and Riley Herbst. Herbst missed the playoffs this season and has gone winless in three seasons with a car that Chase Briscoe won nine times with in 2020. Custer has picked up two road course wins in Xfinity this year, but his performance is a far cry for the domination he displayed in 2019. Even if either of them were ready to move on up, SHR has such a sponsorship crunch that it wouldn’t be out of the picture to see the Cup team downsize for 2024.
Ford’s best prospect in a post-Zane Smith world is arguably Ty Majeski. He scored two wins and made the Championship 4 in his first full-time Truck Series season with ThorSport last year, and he’s in the hunt to make it to Phoenix once again.
Outside of Majeski, ThorSport has Matt Crafton, who is 47 and will stay in the No. 88 truck for as long as he wants to; Ben Rhodes, who seems content to stay in Trucks despite seven wins and a Truck championship at the age of 26; and Hailie Deegan, who has four top-10 finishes in 66 Truck starts.
In contrast, look at Toyota and Chevrolet. John Hunter Nemechek has six Xfinity wins this season and is moving to Cup with Legacy Motor Club’s Toyota rebrand next year. Corey Heim won the Truck Series regular season championship, has three Truck wins and will be vying for the title at Phoenix; he looks destined to move up to Xfinity sooner rather than later. ARCA Menards Series East champion William Sawalich is making select Truck starts and will move up to JGR’s Xfinity team the moment he turns 18 next year, while 19-year-old Sammy Smith scored his first Xfinity win at Phoenix and might have Cup potential a few years down the road.
Chevrolet now has Zane Smith moving on up to Cup. And while nothing has been announced, it appears that Carson Hocevar might do the same. Austin Hill looks destined to get promoted to RCR’s Cup team in a season or two. Christian Eckes has had a breakout three-win season in Trucks, while Chandler Smith won at Richmond Raceway in April as a Xfinity rookie. Beyond them, Nick Sanchez and Sheldon Creed are knocking on the door of a first win in Trucks and Xfinity, respectively.
Ford doesn’t have a number of names waiting in the wings like Toyota and Chevrolet. And while going after big-name drivers in free agency isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it is very much a game of chance. If Kevin Harvick had decided to retire at the end of 2022, SHR could’ve had the perfect replacement in Kyle Busch. But with Harvick retiring in 2023 instead, there were fewer big-name drivers available for the taking. And while SHR did succeed in signing Josh Berry away from JRM, he’s no Kyle Busch, and he will take time to develop.
A manufacturer can’t rely solely on free agent signings or a developmental pipeline; it needs a little bit of both. The problem is that Ford almost completely lacks the latter.
After Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton moved on to Cup rides at Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing, respectively, Penske’s No. 22 Xfinity car shut down instead of finding another driver. There may be seats at SHR, ThorSport and FRM, but its drivers aren’t ready and the moment, and the amount of rides is not enough when compared to the firepower of Chevrolet and Toyota in the lower series.
This is further compounded by a frustrating year for Ford in the Cup Series (which makes the Zane Smith walk all the more perplexing). Ford’s dominant driver of the late 2010s in Harvick is about to retire, and SHR doesn’t have a superstar to replace them. Penske has Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, but it’s been an off year for SHR. With JGR and Hendrick Motorsports firing on all cylinders, Ford doesn’t have enough numbers to fight back.
There is one bright spot of hope, however: Brad Keselowski.
In less than two seasons, Keselowski has turned RFK Racing from a team with a five-year winless drought to one that’s leading the charge for Ford in the 2023 playoffs. Chris Buescher has emerged as a star, and Keselowski himself is knocking on the door of a win, a win that he’s been searching for since April 2021.
Penske is off and SHR is way off, but RFK is on the rise and expanding. Keselowski is looking to add a third car down the road, and the team has an alliance with Rick Ware Racing and newcomer Justin Haley for 2024. And once the Next Gen Ford Mustang gets a new nose next year, its disappointing performance might become a problem left in the past.
The rise of RFK and the new nose should not be reasons for Ford to stay complacent, however. The manufacturer needs to expand its footprint in Xfinity and Trucks, especially now that Chevy and Trackhouse rolled out the red carpet to Ford’s No. 1 prospect.
If sponsorship can be found, Penske should restart its Xfinity team. Once RFK has stabilized itself on the Cup side, getting the Xfinity program rolling once again should be one of the team’s biggest goals. And if Keselowski can somehow revive Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series, it would only be the more the merrier.
Especially when considering how good Keselowski has been at scouting driver talent. Blaney, Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick and Briscoe all caught their first big breaks in NASCAR with BKR, and with the proper funding, Keselowski has shown with BKR and RFK that he has what it takes to take a team to the next level.
Ford is currently in an oddball era with retiring stars, a subpar-performing Cup car and a lackluster pipeline when compared to Chevy and Toyota. Ford needs to continue of process of rebuilding, and that will start by putting more foundations (like RFK) in place.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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