NASCAR: Driver problem on the horizon for Ford?

Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images) /

Ford’s current NASCAR Cup Series driver lineup includes several drivers in their twilight years, and there are no clear replacements.

For decades, Ford has been one of NASCAR‘s premier manufacturers, fielding race teams stacked from top to bottom with high-end talent. That is still seen today, but even with that talent and star power, there’s a growing issue that Ford is facing, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

This year is no different from any other year for Ford in regard to talent, with drivers including Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney all driving for the Blue Oval. However, outside of the Cup Series, Ford finds itself well behind both Chevrolet and Toyota in regard to young prospects working their way up the ranks.

When it comes to the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, Chevrolet and Toyota both have multiple high-end prospects that will almost certainly find themselves in the Cup Series in the coming years. But for Ford? Those future prospects are far and few between.

Ford’s primary young prospect is 2022 Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who currently pilots the No. 38 Ford for Front Row Motorsports in the Truck Series.

Smith has proven to be an exciting young talent and a driver who can win anywhere, whether it’s a 1.5-mile oval, a road course, or a superspeedway. He is currently in his fourth full season in the series, but he is also running several races this year in No. 38 Ford for Front Row Motorsports’ Cup Series team. He will likely make the move to full-time Cup Series racing in 2024.

Outside of Zane Smith, however, Ford’s NASCAR prospect list is sparse.

Cole Custer, who drove the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series from 2020 to 2022, is back with the organization’s Xfinity Series team. He is only 25 years old and could find himself back in the Cup Series as soon as next year.

He has proven himself as a driver capable of winning in both the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. He won the Cup Series at Kentucky Speedway in his rookie season back in 2020.

Outside of those two drivers, Custer’s Xfinity Series teammate, Riley Herbst, is the only other name in the Ford camp that has been thrown around as a potential Cup Series prospect. While Herbst has proven capable of running at the front of the pack, he has yet to bring home a checkered flag in the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series.

But even with Smith, Custer, and Herbst potentially in the Cup Series, there would still be several seats that will need to be filled, and there are no clear replacements.

It’s already a known fact that there will be at least one seat open at Stewart-Haas Racing next year, with Kevin Harvick retiring after the 2023 season. While no replacement has been named for Harvick yet, it’s very likely that Smith, Custer, and Herbst are on the short list to drive the No. 4 Ford next year.

But for Ford, replacing Kevin Harvick is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the NASCAR Cup Series.

While Harvick is the highest profile driver that is on his way out, there are several other Ford drivers that will likely be hanging up their helmets soon.

Harvick’s teammate, Aric Almirola, had initially planned to retire at the end of the 2022 season, but he later walked that back and returned to the No. 10 Ford for the 2023 season, and potentially beyond. Additionally, Brad Keselowski and Michael McDowell are set to turn 40 years old in 2024, and it’s possible that both could call it quits in the next couple years.

With all of those seats opening up, it’s clear that there are not enough prospects within the Ford camp who are truly viable options for filling the voids left by those drivers. And for Ford Performance, if they want young drivers to fill those seats, time is running out for them to make something happen.

As we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, the replacement for a coveted ride isn’t always a young prospect, but instead another driver already in the Cup Series who is looking for a team that can provide better opportunities to contend for wins on a weekly basis.

With a Cup Series garage that is stacked with talent, plenty of drivers are present for Ford teams to potentially try to scoop up.

One notable name that has been thrown around by many is Corey LaJoie, who drives the No. 7 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports. LaJoie has managed to show flashes of potential in his Cup Series career thus far, and he has shown that he is a driver who can do more with less when it comes to equipment.

If you’re a NASCAR team such as Stewart-Haas Racing that will need to fill multiple seats in the coming years, LaJoie should absolutely be considered as a strong replacement candidate for either Harvick or Almirola.

Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is another veteran of the Cup Series whom Stewart-Haas Racing could look to bring in to fill the soon-to-be vacated No. 4 Ford. Even before his Daytona 500 triumph in February, he was already one of the sport’s top superspeedway racers, having won twice in 2017. He is a consistent threat for the win in any given superspeedway race.

Outside of LaJoie and Stenhouse, there are several veteran drivers Ford teams could consider, including A.J. Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. While both drivers are on the older side and nearing retirement, their addition to Ford would buy some more time for teams to search for prospects to bring in and eventually replace them.

The final option for the Blue Oval to explore is to try to lure some of the current Chevrolet and Toyota prospects away from their current Xfinity Series and Truck Series teams to a Ford team.

With the sheer number of elite prospects under the Chevrolet and Toyota banners, it’s unlikely that all of those drivers will find themselves in competitive Cup Series rides within the next few years. Ford could give them an opportunity for a quicker path to the Cup Series while also significantly upgrading their own development pipeline.

Drivers such as Christian Eckes and Tyler Ankrum are among those who would be solid options for Ford to try to bring in. Both of these drivers have high potential and have shown that they are capable of winning races and contending on a weekly basis.

However, both of these drivers have found themselves stuck in the Truck Series for several seasons and have been unable to find any opportunities in the Xfinity Series. But Ford could take advantage and present these drivers with better opportunities in the Xfinity Series, which could in turn lead to potential Cup Series opportunities down the road.

Luring prospects away from their current teams is far from easy to do, but at the end of the day, the high risk could lead to high rewards for Ford.

Should Ford choose this path and poach the right drivers, their development pipeline would not only be vastly improved, but it would also make it easier for teams, most notably RFK Racing, to add race teams and grow as an organization.

The direction Ford takes to address these issues has not yet been seen. But regardless of which path they take, time is not on their side, especially with one of their most important seats opening up at the end of the season.

Ford’s best move in regard to filling that seat? Almost certainly someone with Cup Series experience – and that “someone” could be one of a number of drivers.

But as previously stated, that seat is not the only one Ford must worry about. With the strong possibility that more than one additional seat opens up after 2024, Ford will need replacements who are ready to compete on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

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The offseason between the 2023 and 2024 seasons will be extremely crucial for the Blue Oval. Should they fail to add any reinforcements for their development pipeline, Ford will find themselves falling further behind Chevrolet and Toyota in a distant third in the manufacturer rankings for the foreseeable future.