JOLIET, Ill. — The addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to Ford’s NASCAR program for 2017 was made to increase the automaker’s championship chances.
Now, on the eve of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Playoffs, two SHR drivers are among the five total that will carry the blue oval banner into the 10-race postseason.
First up is Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 here at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR).
“I think that’s a big reason why Ford is part of Stewart-Haas Racing and (it) shows their commitment to wanting to win a championship,” Kevin Harvick, the 2014 series champion and driver of the No. 4 Ford for SHR, said earlier this week.
“I think for us it’s been a lot to take on, but I think we’re more settled now than we were two months ago.”
Former series champion Kurt Busch also competes for SHR and also earned one of the 16 available spots in this year’s playoffs. Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500 while Harvick scored a victory at Sonoma Raceway. Teammates Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer failed to make the playoff field.
Other Ford drivers and teams in the Playoffs are 2012 champ Brad Keselowski (Team Penske), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing).
It is only the third time since 2004 when NASCAR went to a 10-race playoff format that Ford has placed five teams in the title battle. It has never placed more than five.
In 2005, all five Ford teams were from the Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway) stable.
In 2014, Ford representation came from Team Penske (two teams), Roush Fenway (two teams) and Richard Petty Motorsports (one team).
A Ford team hasn’t won NASCAR’s top title, however, since Busch managed the feat in ’04, a winless streak of 12 years.
SHR fielded Chevrolet entries from ’09-16, winning 36 races.
Whether SHR can end Ford’s title drought remains to be seen. Harvick earned two of his four wins last year once the playoffs began. This year there’s just the lone victory by the 41-year-old through the 26-race regular season and the speed and consistency haven’t been as evident.
Busch has come on of late, finishing sixth or better in four of his last five starts, due in part he said to rolling out playoff pieces ahead of the postseason.
“I think as you go into the Playoffs, you know that we still have stuff that’s going to come and going to be built,” Harvick explained. “. .. Most of the things that are in the pipeline haven’t been on the race track yet, so you have to just go out and scrimp and scrap and scrape every week to get every point that you can.
“I think we did that all year — there are some weeks that could have been better and some weeks that could have been a lot worse and it all kind of has a way of evening itself out as you go through the whole season.
“The first goal was to perform well and get yourself into the Playoffs and now the second goal is to try to put yourself in position to race for a championship when you get to Homestead.”
To get there, of course, a team will have to advance through three, three-race rounds that begin here this weekend. Since the debut of the elimination-style format in ’14, Ford has put a team in the Championship Round twice — Team Penske and the No. 22 team with driver Joey Logano in ’14 and again in ’16.
Keselowski, though, said he doesn’t feel Ford teams currently have the speed to win the championship. Other matters will need to come into play.
“At this moment, there’s really no reason for Toyota not to have all four spots going to Homestead,” he said, “but all of that’s dynamic. …
“You never know what people are going to show up with at Chicagoland in the first round and Charlotte and so forth in the second round.
“And then of course getting to the third round, which is a tough one in itself with Martinsville and so forth, it’s tough, too. At this point, no; but we’ll see. It’s a dynamic sport.”
After Sunday’s Chicago stop, the series moves to Loudon, New Hampshire, and Dover, Delaware, for the remaining races that make up the opening Round of 16. Twelve title-eligible drivers will advance to the Round of 12, any race winners and the remainder based on points.