Ford drivers optimistic for smooth transition to Mustang next season

The Stewart-Haas Racing crew (from left) at the 2019 Ford Mustang reveal in Dearborn, Michigan: Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. Courtesy of Ford

DEARBORN, Mich. -- It took Joe Gibbs Racing about three months into the 2017 season to start returning to its 2016 form following the introduction of a new Camry body style.

Some would say six months into the 2018 season, the Chevrolet teams are still trying to find their way after the switch from the Chevrolet SS to the Camaro.

So when Ford opens 2019 with a switch from the Fusion to the Mustang, the Ford teams struggling wouldn't rank among the surprises.

While acknowledging that fact as the 2019 Mustang was unveiled at Ford's headquarters Thursday, the Ford drivers aren't resigned to the fact that they will take a step back.

They very well might. But two things could impact their performance: If NASCAR goes to its radical drafting package for a dozen or so races next year, there's likely no clue how the car would perform; and the Stewart-Haas teams, at the very least, are used to navigating a recent change.

And there could be one more reason for optimism: The teams, like any competitive organization, think they can maximize the new car's potential better and more quickly than the others.

"I don't think either of those two cases [with Toyota and Chevrolet] has been the car," Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski said. "I think there has been other issues. That's the thing about this sport, is that the car is super important but that's not the only piece.

"You have the weekend execution, you have the driver piece, the pit-crew piece. All those things have to come together. ... I don't think in those two scenarios it was the car that held them back, and I don't think it will for us, either."

The Camaro might have had a little tougher transition considering NASCAR went from a template-based inspection system of car bodies to a projector-and-camera scanning system that likely kept any exposure of gray areas in the old system from being capitalized on by the Chevrolet teams.

SHR co-owner Tony Stewart said the way his organization handled the move from Chevrolet to Ford prior to 2017 gives him confidence.

"You look at what we did last year, we switched manufacturers -- that's a pretty big adjustment, too," Stewart said. "If there's a group that I feel most comfortable with, it's our group, in this scenario, to go through that."

Kevin Harvick, who has six wins with the Fusion this year, echoed those remarks. He said "it would be foolish of me to stand here and say I'm 100 percent certain it is going to go well," but he has confidence considering his organization's 2017 performance.

"The strongest part of our company is the aero side of things," Harvick said. "When you look at everything that is going on, there is going to be some challenges along the way but ... switching from one manufacturer to another is way more challenging."

And what about the potential of a drafting package for next year, the one that teams used in the All-Star Race but then NASCAR put off using in points events until 2019?

"I've just decided to step out of that conversation," said Harvick, an ardent opponent of NASCAR's using that package. "I get frustrated with a lot of those things."

Keselowski said the drafting package could be used in anywhere from one race to 20 races. NASCAR has sent the proposed rules to team owners, who have until Oct. 1 to negotiate with the sanctioning body on the 2019 rules.

"If we end up going up with the All-Star package, it's a real dartboard because none of the cars have been tested in that configuration," Keselowski said.

"I have no idea how we'll be competitive. If we stick with the package similar to what we have right now, I expect this race car to be extremely competitive and a pretty big advancement from where we are at right now."

NASCAR's procedures for a new body style have required a wind tunnel test with representatives of the other manufacturers in attendance. They must meet NASCAR's parameters for downforce to make sure there is parity.

Keselowski said the drivers had a couple of sessions with the designers and they listened to their input. Harvick said the drivers talked with the engineers about the balance of the car.

"After the conversations of things you'd like in a new car from a balance standpoint and front and rear bumpers and things like that, that's pretty much the end of the driver [input]," Harvick said.

"It's an engineering project after that, much like everything else that we do. ... The driver is a small piece of designing something like that. The driver will be a part of what setups work and the characteristics of the car and exploiting those types of things after we get them on the track."