In our neatly constructed dream sports worlds, things never change. Lebron James never leaves the Cavs. Brett Favre retires a Packer. Peyton Manning brings a second Lombardi trophy to Indy before he retires. Most of all, Tony Stewart, a man perceived as synonymous with Chevrolet, never, ever associates with a………Ford! Given the reaction of fans throughout NASCAR Nation, you would have thought Coach K was announcing he was leaving Duke to go coach at UNC when it was announced that Stewart-Haas Racing was switching from Chevy to Ford in 2017.
Fans, by nature, are loyal; NASCAR fans especially so. It’s probably safe to say that many Kevin Harvick fans became so because he succeeded the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing; taking over the 3 car, and then changing it to the 29, in deference to the fallen legend. Though Earnhardt drove a Ford early in his career, he became one with Chevy as is his career approached its zenith.
Come to think of it, there hasn’t been this kind of uproar since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving DEI to go drive for Hendrick Motorsports. Oooo! He’s driving for Jeff Gordon’s team! Remember that? It won’t affect Stewart as a driver, but some Harvick say they have no choice but to cheer for a new driver in 2017. For Kurt Busch, I’m sure there will no better symmetry for his career than to be the first championship driver for Ford in say, 2017, since he won it the Chase driving for Ford in 2004. Busch has had multiple rides, so it’s not as jarring. Danica Patrick fans are about the driver, and not so much her car.
In his Wednesday announcement, Stewart said that the conversation between Ford Performance and Stewart-Haas Racing began six months. Instrumental in pushing the ball forward was the signing of Rex Stump to be technical director at SHR. He says the move gets Stewart-Haas “out of the shadows.” After years of getting engines and chassis from Hendrick, the team will make its own chassis, and the engine from Roush Yates. Stewart says this has nothing to do with any unhappiness with Hendrick, but the move makes Stewart-Haas the largest team in the Ford camp.
With a move such as this, we are reminded that racing is a business. That flies in the face of loyalties we construct in our minds. Favre as a Jet, or worse yet, a Viking? Yuck. It was even weirder watching Johnny Unitas playing for the Chargers! It’s a different deal from the perspective of the owner. With the exception of his one season driving Toyotas for Joe Gibbs, Stewart has been a loyal GM man. The switch- to hear Smoke tell it-was something he did with mixed emotions in terms of his loyalties. By the same token, when you wear that owners hat, you face decisions that must be made with the mind, and not the heart. It’s like when the Colts let Peyton Manning go. He’s a legend, but there’s Andrew Luck ripe for the picking. You can’t think so much about the past, but the future. Such decisions mess with the Hollywood narrative, but life is not a movie.
If one separates the head from the heart, it makes sense that Stewart-Haas Racing is making the move. Invariably, Stewart-Haas Racing becomes a feature team, alongside Penske Racing. Roush is on the decline, Petty has been in decline, Wood Bros. is just now returning from years of part-time status and Front Row has struggled to move beyond its small team status.
So, now fans are forced to re-think their loyalties. For some, it’s all about the driver. For the car buffs among us, it’s different. They will look over the current crop of Chevrolet drivers and search for someone else. Stewart-Haas Racing fans will face the same choices that St. Louis Rams are facing as the NFL franchise moves to California.
It’s a hard blow for some, but not a death blow. Speaking as a fan whose favorite drivers raced in Chevys (though I am not a Chevy man), you learn to get used to it.