Ford facing questions after lackluster 2006

It could be a long, slow fade, but Ford owners and drivers feel confident they can right the ship. David Newton breaks down the teams' 2007 outlook.

Updated: February 7, 2007, 9:30 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Mark Martin -- gone.

Dale Jarrett -- gone.

Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton -- all gone.

Matt Kenseth
Jason D. Smith/US PRESSWIREMatt Kenseth suddenly finds himself the senior driver on the top Ford team. What a difference a year makes.

Ford Racing has lost marquee Nextel Cup drivers to other manufacturers as fast as the mother company has laid off employees over the past few years. Top sponsors UPS and National Guard also have bolted.

The manufacturer that in 2002 had seven drivers finish in the top 10 in points had only two this past season in Matt Kenseth and Martin. Only four of the top 20 drivers drove Fords and only six of the 36 races were won by Fords.

A down cycle?

Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion who left Robert Yates Racing for the new Toyota team of Michael Waltrip Racing, blames a lack of funding and engineering. He said Ford has "slacked off a little bit" in both areas over the past few years.

"They have some very good teams out there, but it's going to cost money to be successful in this sport and you're going to have to be willing to put those dollars out there," he said. "From the technology side of it, they haven't put the effort there that the other manufacturers have."

Jack Roush, who two years ago placed all five of his Ford teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, isn't panicking. Despite his so-called war against Toyota, a manufacturer he insists has driven up the cost of racing, he's not in a panic mode.

He noted Ford officials are looking for ways to offer more financial help over the next few years and he's never been at a loss for personnel help.

"They've given us everything we've asked for," he said.

Greg Specht, who was previously Ford Racing Technology's performance operations manager and now works with the Wood Brothers race team, described Ford's struggles as a cycle more than a trend.

He noted that the same philosophy that allowed Roush to win championships in 2003 and 2004 with Kenseth and Busch remains in place. He said the responsibility for keeping drivers falls more on the individual teams than the manufacturer.

"There are always peaks and valleys in racing," he said late last season. "A few years ago, [Richard] Childress was off track and they were able to turn it around. It's just so competitive out there, and there is a lot of parity.

"If you miss your setup or if you're not at the latest configuration, you're going to get passed by a lot of cars."

Ford was passed a lot in 2006 with Chevrolet winning 23 of 36 events. Again, Roush isn't concerned. He believed Ford can get back to where it was from 1999 to 2002 when it won three of four manufacturer championships.

"I couldn't feel more positive about what our prospects are based on the initiatives that we're able to make, based on the support of all of our sponsors and the support that Ford Motor Company has given us," he said.

"In this, their time of greatest need, they're standing shoulder to shoulder with us and giving us everything that would be useful that I could justify."

Here's a look at what the Ford teams have to offer this season:

Roush Racing
There's a new sheriff in town.

For the first time since the doors opened in 1988, Martin won't be the senior driver for Ford's premier organization.

Martin left during the offseason to run a part-time program for Chevrolet-based Ginn Racing. He took with him four runner-up finishes in the points standings, 35 wins and more than 350 top-10s.

Greg Biffle and Kenseth were left to hold down the fort with a young stable that also features Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan.

Biffle not only inherited Martin's title as senior driver, he inherited Martin's crew chief. Pat Tryson was paired with the 2005 Cup runner-up in a crew chief shake-up -- only Kenseth and Robbie Reiser remain intact from last season -- that Roush hopes will return the company to its 2005 form when five drivers combined for 15 wins.

"I've watched Pat for some time," Biffle said. "I paid attention to what he was doing and I like Pat's style -- the way he works on the race cars, always watching them through the wind tunnel. They're the first ones in line for practice every week.

"His team is organized and I liked the way that Pat operated. It was a crew chief inside our company already -- that made it a lot easier transition and it was one I was happy with."

Outlook: Expect Biffle and Kenseth to contend for the championship and Carl Edwards to rebound with a berth in the Chase. It's make or break time for McMurray, who has gone through crew chiefs the past year the way Takeru Kobayashi goes through hot dogs. The No. 6 will not make the Chase with Ragan.

Robert Yates Racing
No organization was scrutinized more in 2006.

David Gilliland
Jason D. Smith/US PRESSWIREDavid Gilliland is not the newest driver to be added to the Robert Yates Racing Lineup, but he's by far the youngest.

There was the loss of both drivers, Jarrett to Michael Waltrip Racing and Sadler to Evernham Motorsports. There was the loss of top sponsor UPS to MWR and speculation that the company could be sold or reduced to a one-car team.

There was the lack of performance, failing to put a driver inside the top 20 in points and not getting to Victory Lane for the first time since the company was formed in 1989.

Owner Doug Yates eventually lured 50-year-old Ricky Rudd out of retirement to replace Jarrett and signed rookie David Gilliland to replace Sadler. He convinced Mars Incorporated to expand its sponsorship with M&Ms on the No. 38 to a second sponsorship with Snickers on the No. 88.

The elder Yates also became more actively involved in running the company after surrendering much of the control to son Doug.

"I had a lot of questions of, 'Do I belong here?' " Yates said, recalling last season. "I feel like I've got my hands on it, my arms around it and the right people working together. I hope we can scare the heck out of everybody because we're going to outrun some people."

Outlook: No wonder Yates wanted a veteran in the No. 88. He needs somebody to take care of those cars because the shop will be busy putting those destroyed by Gilliland back together. They'll both be fast at times, but winning is another question.

Wood Brothers
Few teams have more tradition than the Wood Brothers, whose drivers have included David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker.

Few teams have struggled more over the past 15 years.

The last win came in 2001 with Sadler. Before that it was 1993 with Morgan Shepherd.

But there have been some positive steps. The organization moved from its remote shop in Virginia over a year ago to the Charlotte area to be closer to the talent.

Ken Schrader was re-signed to develop rookie Jon Wood, splitting the season in the No. 21 Fusion.

"We were born last year and crawled all year and now we're walking, so we just have to take it a step at a time and not try to overdo something we can't deliver," said Eddie Wood, the co-owner of the car. "I don't want to promise something we can't do. I want to do what we can do and do it well, and then progress from there."

Outlook: NASCAR has put an emphasis on winning this season with changes to the points system. The Wood Brothers have put an emphasis on finishing. Any top-10 is a reason to celebrate here.

Robby Gordon Motorsports
Robby Gordon's decision to leave Chevrolet after last season wasn't so much a slap at Chevy as it was an indictment of Ford's struggles.

As he sees it, becoming the second-best Ford team will be much easier than cracking the top five with Chevrolet.

"There was an opportunity, I think, to [take] a faster step to the top with Ford Motor Company," said Gordon, who has only two top-5s and five top-10s in two years as an owner/driver.

"Chevrolet has obviously some strong teams and Ford is going to need strong teams to compete against them and the other manufacturers competing in the sport."

Outlook: He's always a threat on the road courses, but if he wants to become the second-best Ford team he'll have to win somewhere else. It won't happen this year, though.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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