By far the oldest of the three manufacturers competing for NASCAR's biggest prize, the 111-year-old Ford Motor Company is banking on one of the sport's youngest stars, not just this weekend, but going forward.
Joey Logano, a 24-year-old from Middletown, Connecticut, carries Ford’s hopes for its first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship since Kurt Busch took home the trophy in 2004 into Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).
“That would be an exclamation point for us to celebrate a Ford champion,” said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, which goes through great effort and expense to maintain the naming rights to Ford Championship Weekend and the title-determining events at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re capping off a phenomenal season with 14 wins, our most since 2005.”
Even so, Allison knows that to a certain extent, Championship Weekend is likely to be bittersweet for Ford which bids adieu to two of its biggest stars this weekend.
Carl Edwards, who’ll drive a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015, will be in his final race for Roush Fenway Racing. Marcos Ambrose, returning to his native Australia after nine years in the U.S., is driving his final event for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Logano came through Saturday’s practice sessions unscathed. Posting the fastest lap among the four title contenders during Happy Hour, the Team Penske hopeful appeared confident in his No. 22 Ford Fusion machine.
“I feel we are in pretty good shape,” Logano said. “We were still seventh on the board, but we didn’t quite have the takeoff speed we need, so we’ll try to find a little bit there. I feel like the long runs are where our Shell Pennzoil Ford is really fast. Maybe we are a few little adjustments away from being the fastest car, but I already feel like we are a top-three car right now.”
Logano believes that whoever prevails on in Sunday’s race will need to be able to run at the top and the bottom of the mile-and-a-half oval.
“The top is still the preferred (line) but you’ve got to be able to move around a little bit and I feel like our car can do that,” Logano said. “Toward the end of the practice we were able to make (the bottom groove) work a little better."
No matter what happens on Sunday, it appears that Logano and his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who have combined for 11 Sprint Cup wins this season, will be Ford’s standard bearers for the foreseeable future.
“At Ford we’re a family company and that permeates everything we do,” Allison said. “Whenever you have a member of the family pursuing other options, it leaves a void, personally with team members as well as professionally in terms of fan outreach. It’s personalities that people want to follow.
“Obviously, with Marcos, he’s stepping out of one Ford to another Ford (racing for Roger Penske and Dick Johnson) in another part of the world and we wish him the best. Carl Edwards is someone we hold in the highest regard. He’s the winningest (current) Ford driver. He’s been part of many of our outreach (efforts) to our fans and nothing will ever take that away.”
Edwards, a winner in both 2008 and 2010 at Homestead-Miami Speedway would like nothing more than to reprise those winning efforts in his Ford finale.
“It’s Ford Championship Week and I want to get a win for Jack Roush, (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and all my guys,” said Edwards, eliminated from Chase title contention after finishing 15th at Phoenix. “I want to give the performance to finish the season the way that everyone deserves.”
Fennig, retiring from his crew chief responsibilities, was the last Ford crew chief to win a Sprint Cup title when he was with Busch in 2004.
“One thing Jimmy Fennig and I agreed on,” said Edwards late in Friday’s practice, “we’re not going to leave anything on the table. If we go down and fail, it’s only because we’re trying everything.”
Twice a runner-up for the Sprint Cup championship (2008, 2011), Edwards has spent his entire Cup career at Roush Fenway, racking up 23 victories, including nine in 2008. He also collected 38 Nationwide and six Camping World Truck Series victories and brought Jack Roush a then-Busch Series title in 2007.
Ambrose, 29, was a V8 Supercars champion in Australia (2003-04) before coming to the U.S. He raced Sprint Cup cars for Wood Brothers, Tad Geschickter, Michael Waltrip and JTG Daugherty before joining forces with Richard Petty Motorsports, for whom he won twice at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
“RPM has been so gracious with my departure,” said Ambrose, who expects his family to be permanently resettled in Australia by mid-December. “Sometimes when you end a chapter like this it can get a bit sticky at the end, but RPM has been fantastic. Everyone is really pleased for me and thrilled for what I’ve been able to contribute. It’s just great to be held in that regard.”
Ambrose also won five road course events on the Nationwide circuit. But if he heads home with any regret, it’s that he did not win on a NASCAR oval.
“I’ve got some unfinished business in NASCAR, which I wish I could have ticked the box on,” he said. “Obviously, winning a race on the ovals is tough. I wanted to make the Chase—and we came close—but couldn’t quite make it. So, there are some pieces to the puzzle that I’m missing. But, in general, I’m just thrilled to have experienced it and (for) my family to enjoy what America is.”
Ambrose, who has 18 top-five finishes in Sprint Cup, said his most memorable moment was sharing a Victory Lane celebration with Richard Petty. “Winning a race is great,” he said, “but sharing it with The King was pretty special—just an amazing thing.”
Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, will also be driving his final Sprint Cup race for Wood Brothers on Sunday. But he’s not leaving Ford–-simply shifting over to Roush Fenway, where he will be behind the wheel of the No. 6 Fusion on a full-time assignment next season.