February 2019: Inside the Garage, Ford’s Secret Weapon

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February 28th, 2019

Imagine sitting down at a table with Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Tony Stewart, Bob Jenkins, and Len Wood. You are going to ask them to give up a certain amount of their autonomy as it relates to their race teams. You must convince them to check their egos and dominant personalities at the door for the good of everyone at the table. Not a job for the average man.

Mark Rushbrook and NASCAR’s Ford Team Owners / Lasco Press Photo

Mark Rushbrook is not your ordinary guy. In fact, he is Ford Motor Company’s secret weapon in all things NASCAR. The Global Director of Ford Performance Motorsports, Rushbrook is 51, tall, fit, with a balding head, and gracious personality. He is easy to talk to, yet his powers of persuasion are becoming legendary.

Mark Rushbrook / Lasco Press Photo

In Pursuit of a Championship

At Homestead Miami Speedway in November of 2017, Ford had two cars in the Championship 4 fighting for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Ford had not won a NASCAR manufacturer’s championship since 2002. Martin Truex Jr. and his Toyota had been dominating mid-sized speedways all year long with their newly designed Camry. Truex won the race, captured the Championship and once again dashed Ford’s hope of celebrating the end of their title drought.

In the post-race press conference, Brad Keselowski bemoaned the state of Ford Motorsports. Recognizing the dominance of the new Camry, concerned about a similar performance from Chevrolet with the new Camaro in 2018, and no plans for a new Ford NASCAR model. Keselowski predicted, “If something doesn’t change, we’re going to take a drubbing next year.”

Brad Keselowski at MIS / Lasco Press Photo

2018

Well, something did change. NASCAR introduced a new laser inspection system. The Optical Scanning Station allowed the governing body the ability to demand closer tolerances to body design rules. Ford caught a break, the playing field was immediately leveled.

Rushbrook preached Ford Performance’s philosophy of working together both off and on the track. Owners and drivers of the Ford Fusion teams began to buy in. Race two of the second round of the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs saw the plan come together in spectacular fashion. The green and white checkered flag at the end of Stage 1 in the 1000Bulbs.com 500 from Talladega saw Ford drivers finish 1st through 6th. Stage 2 was similar, 1st through 4th and 7 of the top 10 positions went to Fusion Drivers. Aric Almirola won the race for Ford while 7 Blue Oval drivers finished in the top 10.

Drafting together, pitting together, boxing out the other competitors, the game plan was perfect. Complete Ford domination.

2018 NASCAR Championship Weekend

Back at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the 2018 NASCAR Championship Weekend. Ford was primed to win two championships. In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Cole Custer was the favorite. In 2017, Custer’s Ford led 182 of the 200 laps to win the race. Unfortunately, he was not one of the Final 4 competitors in the Championship. In 2018 he was.

Cole Custer / Lasco Press Photo

Again Custer’s Ford was the dominant car, in the lead he was running away from everyone. Then a huge mistake. On the final round of pit stops his team pitted 5 laps later than Tyler Reddick. Tire falloff was such an issue that Reddick took advantage of those few laps to open a huge advantage on Custer. Had he pitted with the other contenders, Custer could have easily won the race and the Championship.

Cole Custer’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Mustang / Lasco Press Photo

Rushbrook leaned against the wall near the start/finish line on the track watching the Chevrolet celebration. The look of abject disappointment on his face. You could almost read his thoughts. “We had this race won and gave it away.

The Cup Final

Much to the delight of Rushbrook, Ford Performance, and the Ford Motor Company the following evening Joey Logano in his Team Penske Ford Fusion captured the NASCAR Cup Championship. Ford celebrated their first Driver’s Championship since 2004 when Kurt Busch won for Roush Racing. Logano’s win also gave Ford the 2018 NASCAR Manufacturers Championship. Ford’s first since 2002. The last time Ford won both Championships in the same season was 1999.

Joey Logano with his Family Celebrate his victory and the 2018 NASCAR Manufacturer’s Championship with Edsel Ford at Homestead-Miami Speedway / Lasco Press Photo

The Mustang Enters 2019 NASCAR Cup Series Competition

When Ford Performance announced that the Ford Mustang had been approved by NASCAR to compete in the 2019 Cup Series. Blue Oval fans rejoiced, even NASCAR’s Ford teams expressed excitement at the news. The question on everyone’s lips, “Would the Mustang suffer the same growing pains as the Camaro had when newly introduced at the start of the 2018 season?”

Ford Introduces the 2019 NASCAR Mustang in Dearborn. Lasco Press Photo

We caught up with Mark Rushbrook at the North American International Auto Show and asked him that very question. His response? “We are going to be just fine.” He was brimming with confidence that the Mustang would be competitive right out of the box.

Other Manufacturers

2018 had been a disaster for Chevrolet. A win in the season-opening Daytona 500 by Austin Dillon came only after he nudged and spun out Aric Almirola’s Ford on the last corner of the last lap. Chevy won only four races all year compared to the 19 Ford victories. The bowtie did not have a car qualify for the Championship 4. Why? No one with the management skills of Rushbrook.

Toyota produced 13 wins without a central figure leading from the manufacturer perspective. Joe Gibbs is the closest thing to a controlling force for team Toyota as other Camry owners share his expertise. This was especially evident at Homestead-Miami in 2018 when he ordered Pole winner Denny Hamlin to select the 2nd best pit stall. Allowing Kyle Busch, the 2nd fastest qualifier to take the premium spot to improve his chances at winning the Championship.

Fast Out of the Gate

Rushbrook’s prediction was dead on as the Mustang looked dominant at Daytona. While the Chevy’s from Hendrick Motorsports led the field, the Fords qualified well. In the Daytona Duels qualifying races, the Ford’s showed what they had been working on over the off-season. A 1-2-3 finish in both races gave the Mustang six of the top 8 spots for the 500.

Daytona International Speedway / Lasco Press Photo

The Ford Performance strategy was rock solid at the Mustang’s pitted as a group during the 1st and 2nd stages. Bad luck prevented a Ford breakaway as caution’s waved shortly after their stops in both stages.

Still, Joey Logano had a chance to win at the finish. The Ford of Michael McDowell was lined up with Logano on the final restart. McDowell felt he had a chance at the win himself and chose to not push Logano across the finish line. The decision was costly as Logano finished 4th and McDowell 5th. Manufacturing cooperation goes out the window when battling for a victory.

Joey Logano in his New Ford Mustang at the 2019 Daytona 500 / Lasco Press Photo

Moving Forward in 2019

Rushbrook’s work together philosophy was on display during Media Day prior to the Daytona 500. More than one Mustang driver stated, “if I can’t win I am going to make sure a Ford does.” But, at the end of the race egos surfaced and it was every man for himself. Rushbrook understands that’s the way it should be.

In an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Rushbrook explained that Ford Performance did get involved with the issue afterward. “I will say that we frequently get involved,” he said. “We don’t always get involved, but certainly after Daytona, like I said, we’re a family and every family has issues. For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that. But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Atlanta and Beyond

Back to normal at Atlanta. Brad Keselowski, in his Team Penske Mustang, wins the race. Mustangs take three of the top five finishing positions. Will the manufacturing cooperation hold for the remainder of the season. I’d bet on it, because Mark Rushbrook said so.

Keselowski Wins at Atlanta / Lasco Press Photo