February 18, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Ford's courtship of Stewart-Haas Racing was nothing short of clandestine.

No matter how Ford crunched the numbers, it was at a significant deficit in car count. It hindered the manufacturer's ability to win a championship - Ford last won a Cup title in 2004 - and new leadership recognized an immediate need to add a top-tier team.

With sights set on SHR, the Ford brass quietly went to work on luring a lifetime Chevrolet team to a rival manufacturer. It was never going to be that easy, but the Ford duo of chief technical officer Raj Nair and global director Dave Pericak didn't know the lengths they'd have to take to court the team.

''The first time we visited, we had to stop in some lady's front yard and change our clothes,'' Nair told The Associated Press. ''She's looking out the window like she's going to call the police.''

SHR held the meetings in its Formula One shop, which is detached from its NASCAR building. SHR officials made it clear early how serious they were about secrecy.

''When we would go in, they said, `Look guys, don't be driving a Ford. Don't be wearing branded stuff,''' Pericak recalled. ''But we're wearing branded stuff because we're meeting with other teams, as well. So we are literally changing shirts in this lady's yard just to get into the building.''

Ford pulled off a deal, luring stalwart Chevy guy Tony Stewart into the blue oval brand and significantly upgrading its existing lineup.

The team gained 2004 champion Kurt Busch, the last driver to win a Cup title for Ford, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, along with Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer, the replacement for retired driver Stewart.

The new partnership puts Ford at 13 entries in a 40-car field, and a fighting chance against Chevrolet and Toyota. Ford had just eight wins last season - seven came from the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano - and only three drivers in the 16-driver playoff field.

In Chevys a year ago, SHR drivers combined for six wins and three spots in the playoffs. Toyota, meanwhile, had 15 wins and five slots in the playoffs.

Confident its roster is now on par with its rivals, Ford Performance has lofty goals for its NASCAR program. So far, everything has gone to plan on the list of goals set by Nair. He wanted new production cars, and succeeded with the GT350, the Raptor, the Focus RS and the Ford GT. He wanted his sports car program to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year to celebrate Ford's 50th anniversary victory, and Ford made it happen.

''But we've not achieved that goal of a manufacturer's championship. We've not achieved that goal of the driver's championship,'' Nair said. ''I would say both are important. For us as a manufacturer, obviously, the fight with Chevy and Toyota is really important, but the driver's championship is equally as important.''

Ford has improved its lineup over the years by adding Team Penske to stalwart Roush-Fenway Racing, and the Penske group has accounted for most of Ford's success the last few years. Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, Go Fas Racing and TriStar Motorsports also field Fords.

''We brought Penske on board and that's been very successful for us, and now getting Stewart-Haas, the caliber of the organization and the caliber of those drivers, I think we've got a lot better chance to achieve that end goal,'' Nair said.

The switch isn't simply changing brands for Stewart-Haas. The team had been aligned with Hendrick Motorsports and got its chassis and engines from the Hendrick group. There also was engineering support and, at times, shared information by the organizations.

The move means SHR is now building its own cars and getting its horsepower from Roush Yates Engines, which Stewart labeled ''a totally different package.''

''I feel like it's an appropriate time for us to get out on our own and cut the cord,'' Stewart said. ''I feel like we're ready for that as an organization.''

The transition has been aided by Ford personnel.

''They are really focused on winning races and championships,'' Stewart said. ''When we first started meeting with Ford, it was very apparent that there were a lot of things they had to offer that we hadn't seen before and were huge assets for us. That's why we made a serious look at it and ultimately made the decision to switch over.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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