|Posted by: Frank Brandt on March 13, 2019 at 3:58am|
The entire world is in on the secret that the outside of a stock car is essentially a shell molded to resemble the passenger car after which it is named, with realistic decals simulating most of the working parts, like headlights and tail lights.
There is a valid safety reason: real headlights, for instance, can shatter through contact, cover the track and cause flat tires and wrecks. But NASCAR seemed to get away from making their race cars look like the kind of car you would, say, walk into a showroom (or log online) and buy.
For a while, stock cars looked sort of the same, as NASCAR continued to try to keep the competition even among manufacturers. Long-time fans made it clear they did not like that; a Chevy should look like a Chevy and a Ford like a Ford, and the Toyotas should get lost.
Then General Motors reshaped its Cup-level stock car for 2018 and changed its name from the Chevrolet SS to a Camaro ZL1, the bodacious muscle car. Ford followed, changing its Fusion model into its muscle-car model, the Mustang, for Cup racing.
(Toyota changed the name and shape of its car for the Xfinity second-tier series in 2019 to the high-performance Supra from the Camry, which is thought of much more often as a family car than a muscle car. Toyota’s Cup cars probably will be Supras some day.)
Ford also made two critical -- and brilliant -- cosmetic changes that drive home the message that these are Mustangs, placing an iconic (and big) Mustang silhouette on the faux grille of the car and adding the model’s signature triple tail lights.
They don’t blink from the inside to the outside, like real Mustang tail lights, but they serve their purpose. When the backs of the cars are shown in traffic during Cup races on TV, it is easy to spot which cars are the Ford Mustangs, and which cars are the other two guys.
Chevrolet and Toyota have placed their logos on the front of their race cars, but the Camaro has a narrow front grille, diminishing the size of the famous “bow tie,” and the Camry and Supra don’t have the brand recognition of the Mustang.
No other Ford has the brand recognition of the Mustang. Consider the other Ford brands that have raced at the highest level: Fairlane, Thunderbird, Galaxie, Torino, Talladega, Taurus and Fusion. None are as iconic or as sexy as its 55-year-old “pony car.”
A Ford Mustang also won two of the three Cup races it was in this year, far outpacing the Camaro’s performance after it debuted in 2018. Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500, the 2018 season opener in a Camaro, but a Chevy did not win on the Cup level again until August.
And the only Chevy driver to win a race after Dillon was Chase Elliott. Only six Camaro drivers made the 16-car playoffs, and none of the six made it to the four-car finals.
The coup de grace: Joey Logano won the 2018 title in a Ford Fusion, the first Cup title for Ford since 2004, and Brad Keselowski and Logano won early this year at Atlanta and Las Vegas. Four Ford drivers, and one Chevy driver, were among the top seven in the standings.
The season is long, too long, so the Camaro has time to respond to the challenge and catch up to the Fords. But Ford’s changeover to the Mustang, both from the performance side and the aesthetic side, has been a resounding winner and has leveled the field, in many ways.
Now, whether that means more people will go out and buy a Ford Mustang won’t be determined for a while. But the Ford Motor Co. has used NASCAR to make its coolest brand its most valuable public-relations tool. Other Cup drivers are catching long views of those tail lights.