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TORRES: What’s Next for Ford After Losing Zane Smith to Chevrolet?

Zane Smith will move onto the NASCAR Cup Series in 2024. (Photo: Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

Ford Performance lost arguably its best young prospect they could’ve built a future around in Zane Smith as he’ll be driving Chevrolet-powered cars by Trackhouse Racing with an alliance with Spire Motorsports next year.

Over the years, Ford have prided themselves on quality prospects over quantity, but they might’ve fumbled big time on losing Smith. He was the best guy they’ve had after Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric, both of whom sadly floundered in mid-pack purgatory since joining the Cup Series, Daytona 500 win be damned for the latter.

In a similar way Toyota Racing Development lost out on Kyle Larson before Christopher Bell changed the narrative, who does Ford have in their development pipeline that’ll pan out? Seriously, who does Ford have to build upon that’s good or wasn’t demoted?

Luck and underwhelming results plummeted Riley Herbst from top-three in points early on to not even making the Xfinity Series playoffs this season. Clear as day, there’s little to no signs of him being the man who’ll move the needle for Ford whatsoever.

Herbst has gotten better compared to when he first joined the sport full-time in 2020, but he’s yet to even win in Xfinity and not proven folks that Ford should pour their efforts into making him the future. Missing the playoffs did him no wonders for his stock.

At least he has a Cup Series top-10 to his name after this year’s Daytona 500 — something that David Green, Bobby Hamilton Jr., and Cole Whitt never had.

Cole Custer doesn’t really count in the sense that he had to go back to Xfinity just to redeem his racing career after three painstaking campaigns in Cup. Mind you, Custer has been competing in the national divisions for a decade and he was a top prospect for Ford when he was a beast in Xfinity, but I’m focusing on racers who’ve yet made it to Cup full-time.

Kyle Sieg is driving for the family-owned RSS Racing and hasn’t quite set the world on fire. I’d like to see him drive for a top-caliber ride and see if he can surprise us. Otherwise, all signs say he’ll be a lifer in Xfinity and perhaps Ford investing in him isn’t on the cards.

Could Ford maybe redeem themselves and eye on Ty Majeski? It’s a definite yes.

All he genuinely needs is a loyal sponsor that’ll be with him for the long haul, and he’d be on his way to Xfinity. Majeski is a top-tier racer that if you put him in great equipment, he’ll deliver. But there’s one major caveat — Ford already gave Majeski the ball to run with.

Such ball Majeski ran led to the heinous 2018 Xfinity campaign that was Roush’s No. 60 team. It didn’t work out and led to Majeski rebuilding his value by ruling the short track scene before making it back to NASCAR with ThorSport Racing.

Last year, Majeski made the Championship 4 and frequently battles for wins and top-fives on a consistent basis. Despite the long journey, I still believe Ford should give him a second chance of being their top prospect. He’s at least proven his worth compared to his teammate Hailie Deegan.

No matter what team she’s driven for since leaving Toyota after 2019, Deegan has shown no signs of being the one to carry Ford’s future. I understand much of it has been bad luck and perhaps she’d be better off driving in Xfinity, but results come a long way and Deegan hasn’t shown me that in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Deegan wanted Rich Lushes as her crew chief and now they’re no longer working together. Lushes returned to calling the shots for Ben Rhodes, who won a championship together two years ago. The ThorSport experiment thus far has been a failure to where if she doesn’t deliver in 2024, the hype Deegan had before 2020 will wither for good.

Remember, ThorSport left Toyota in large part of Deegan being Ford’s project. Even though the Ohio-based team had more pace with Toyotas, her teammates (Majeski, Rhodes and Matt Crafton) performed relatively the same, so it goes back to the driver, not the truck. Time is really ticking for Deegan to be the racer people saw in her out West.

In 66 NCTS starts, Deegan has only finished in the top-10 four times. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

With the Deegan Experience not living up to the hype, Smith was everything you’d want in a future star. He’s a proven winner and champion in Front Row Motorsports’ Truck Series program. Doesn’t hurt having charming looks because the world of PR and marketing like that stuff.

Car owner Bob Jenkins believed in him, which is why he kept the No. 38 team around after FRM promoted Todd Gilliland, who was one of several TRD prospects beforehand, to Cup since last year.

Even with Smith leaving FRM at season’s end, Jenkins will keep the truck program going which is a good sign for Ford as much as FRM because maybe the developmental pipeline could survive. It can all change if FRM goes with a seasoned veteran racer like Grant Enfinger, who will be a free agent once GMS Racing closes its doors, then Ford’s program may be in trouble.

What’s more amusing is that Ford ended up having Smith in their lineup by unforeseen circumstances out of his control. In a way, it didn’t mean to go down like that. A diamond on the rough discovery if you ask me.

Let’s not forget Smith also ran select Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports (a Chevy team) where even then, he was a guy that people shouldn’t ignore. Especially after scoring a top-five at Phoenix in November 2019, Smith had future star status. What he lacked was funding, so he had to prove his worth by talent, which was his biggest strength.

When Smith joined FRM, it felt like a victory for Ford as well because they had someone who could carry the flag once established veterans such as Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick (after 2023) call it a career.

However, Smith’s path is rather unique because joining FRM and Ford ended up happening because of the very team he’ll drive for now buying Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2021 season. It’s no secret Smith was poised to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 1 Chevrolet, but when Trackhouse bought CGR’s NASCAR assets, the Cup dream was put on hold.

Safe to say, it worked out in the long run for Smith who’ll be competing for Rookie of the Year honors with Josh Berry, Ford’s newest Cup driver.

“For me it’s all I’ve ever wanted, but to have that weight lifted off my shoulders and knowing that I’m doing next year is huge,” said Smith. “I feel like it’s just so nice to have clarity in this industry. But then again, it’s another weight added on my shoulders because these are my final three races left in a Truck, and I want to make those the best races I’ve ever had and hopefully get into this Final Four and walk off into the sunset with a back-to-back championship.”

In many ways, Smith had his eyes being a part of Justin Marks’ race team for a while. Especially after the Ganassi program faded away where Marks explained that Smith reached out to him about ways of being a part of the team’s vision.

Long term, the young Californian had his mind made up in how he could be a full-time Cup driver and Ford wasn’t a part of the vision.

“We didn’t know Zane was under any kind of contract or anything with Chip,” said Marks. “When I got the text, I was like, ‘Oh… ok. We’re not in a spot right now to do anything.’

“It was a moment that went on Ty (Norris’) world-famous whiteboard and sat there for a long time. It’s that kind of thing. It’s like when Ross (Chastain) texted me after we announced the CGR thing, and he said, ‘I want this.’

“When someone like Zane reaches out and says, ‘How can I be a part of this, whatever you’re doing?’ at that stage of Trackhouse, it shows the drive that he has and the commitment that he’s got and how he’s constantly thinking about how to create opportunities for himself. It’s another element to a great story that we’re all writing together.”

Zane Smith’s most recent win was in Austin where he literally scorched it down during burnouts. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Could Ford have stepped in and realized they should’ve tried harder in keeping Smith and see where it could go?

Probably. But if Smith felt returning to Chevy-powered cars will showcase his true worth and not flounder around mid-pack in a Ford, it’s ultimately the fault of the manufacturer.

Remember, David Gilliland’s Truck Series team used to run Fords before rebranding themselves as TRICON Garage and ran Toyotas. Consequently, Ford no longer can build around the Gray brothers (Tanner and Taylor) and why Deegan was out of a ride in the first place before joining ThorSport.

Now, TRD can build around guys like Corey Heim and Jesse Love which highlights their quantity approach can work despite not having many seats in Cup. Ford’s quality approach on the other hand, not so much now.

Perhaps a bigger blunder than losing Smith is how they could’ve already had another true face for the Blue Oval brand. We’re not far removed from Ford not wanting Kyle Larson to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021 following the iRacing scandal during lockdown.

Such vetoing power has left an understandingly bitter and sour taste in Tony Stewart’s ever since. Moreover, both Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports are getting all the fruitful perks thanks to Larson being a generational talent. Whereas SHR may be in deep trouble, if they aren’t already.

With Ford not having the best prospects, losing ones they had in the palm of their hands and some flopping or being mid in Cup, what can they do in 2024 and beyond?

In lamest terms, all Ford can do is hope both Berry and Justin Haley pan out. Mind you, Berry will be the first Cup rookie over the age of 30 since Danica Patrick in 2013. He’s anything but young in the racing pipeline, but Berry didn’t come from Ford — he was Dale Jr.’s prospect for a decade-plus.

Berry joining SHR is a great chance for him to showcase he is more than just a guy Dale Jr. believed in for a long time. Growing pains will be inevitable especially with the team not being sub-par, but if I were Ford, I’d hope he can be the man for all parties in the short run.

Now long term, Ford can look at another long-time Chevy mainstay Haley, who is leaving Kaulig Racing to join Rick Ware Racing next year, as possibly a guy to rely on carrying the torch. In many people’s eyes, the decision of Haley is huge downgrade because RWR haven’t been known as a team who’ve improved performance wise like Front Row Motorsports.

However, Haley’s possible advantage is with RWR’s alliance with RFK Racing, Ford’s top team right now, he can be seen as a guy who might end up succeeding Brad Keselowski in the No. 6 Ford someday. Haley’s known not to be a guy explaining contracts, advanced game plans or motives, but perhaps taking the risk of joining RWR will be rewarded over time.

Brad Keselowski ahead of Ty Gibbs and Martin Truex, Jr. at Bristol. (Photo: Kevin Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

Right now, RFK are doing something right because they’ve been carrying Ford this season. SHR are nowhere near as good as them right now, Front Row are slowly producing results, and Penske have been up-and-down all year.

In fact, RFK has won more races than Penske 3-2 after 29 races, all by Chris Buescher. Another guy, who I would look at being the face of Ford right now, but he’s a seasoned veteran in the Cup Series.

All year, Buescher has been solid and has the second-best average finish of all Cup guys at 12.1, only trailing Denny Hamlin’s 12.0 average. He could be a title contender, but I’d like to see how he fares next year to see if 2023 won’t end up either a fluke or a contender for one-season wonder (ex. Aric Almirola in 2018).

If you ask me, Ford should build on Haley long-term, give Majeski another chance, and hope that Berry can help SHR become serviceable. Losing Smith may not matter over time but it’s important to see some concerns regarding its prospects.

Right now, only Majeski can fix that for Ford and I’m afraid such a chance may not happen. In large part of not having a big backer and the awful 2018 Xfinity campaign with Roush. Even if things work out, Majeski ended up with Ford again in large part of landing Deegan a ride.

Ford’s driver development efforts are indeed in trouble.

Throughout my young motorsports media career, my number-one goal is to be a personnel that can be flexible with my writing and photography in the world of NASCAR and INDYCAR. Content delivery is vital because this is my main passion and what keeps me going. On the side, I also do sports production ranging from Seattle Kraken hockey to the 2023 NCAA Women's March Madness. All for the love of the game. With four National Motorsports Press Association photography awards, I'm not slowing down anytime soon. Outside of media, I'm super vocal about my musical tastes that goes from Metallica to HAIM. At times, there might be some Paul Thomas Anderson and Southern California references in my social media.

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