Do NASCAR Drivers Choose Their Cars?


Do NASCAR Drivers Choose Their Cars

When we look at our favorite NASCAR stars, one of the first things we are interested in is what car they drive. Kyle Busch drives the No. 18 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, and his teammate Denny Hamlin drives the No. 11 Toyota. You’ll find Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Ford Mustang on the Stewart-Haas Racing team, while Kyle Larson is comfortably secured in his No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on the Hendrick Motorsports team.

Although teams do have the ability to change the manufacturer, they use the relationships between teams and manufacturers take years to develop. Drivers as part of the team, especially when established or long term, will have input on the choice of manufacturer, but the decision will before the team to make.

OK, so we know that drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing are using Toyota Camrys, Stewart-Haas are using Ford Mustangs, and Hendrick are using Chevy Camaros…but how do teams choose between these three NASCAR vehicle makers? Toyota, Ford, or Chevrolet, how do drivers choose their cars? This is the core question we want to answer in this article.

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Who Are the NASCAR Car Makers? Why So Few?

As we mentioned in the introduction, there are three main manufacturers of NASCAR vehicles: Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet. Before 2012, there was a fourth, Dodge, but their departure in that year with no other company stepping up to replace them left only that aforementioned trio. Going far back into the more distant and early days of NASCAR, just about every American car maker had a NASCAR car out there.

Why have so many turned into so few? The original idea was that NASCAR vehicles would look almost exactly the same as street cars produced by these same companies. This was fantastic for fans to watch, because it was a form of racing that they could more closely relate to, unlike the more “alien” cars of sports like IndyCar and Formula 1.

There have been suggestions already of four more companies that could join the NASCAR family, namely Nissan, Volkswagen, Buick/GMC, and Chrysler/Dodge. In fairness, it’s three new teams and a re-joiner in Dodge, but you get the idea. Even though Nissan actually unveiled a concept car back in 2017, rumors and talk have amounted to no real practical action so far.

For now at least it seems we remain with the trio of manufacturers we have. Others are hesitant to jump on the bandwagon because of the serious investment of time and capital that is required to do so.

They know that if they get it right, it can pay dividends, but the risks are also tremendous and an unknowing or naively entering manufacturer could find themselves lumbered with a very expensive automotive albatross around their necks.

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How Teams Pick Their Cars

Fans of NASCAR will know that while we call them the “manufacturers” of NASCAR vehicles, Toyota, Ford and Chevy are actually more a supplier of parts than anything else. It’s not like Toyota makes NASCAR vehicles in its American factories and then ships them to the team when they order one. The teams have to build the cars using the main parts and components supplied by their chosen manufacturer.

So, for instance, Bill Davis Racing used to use Dodge cars, and Dodge would provide them with an engine block and cylinder head for the engine, which is then assembled by the team to suit the car and track type. NASCAR vehicle builds will differ slightly depending on what kind of track they are going to be used for.

But none of this answers our core question on how teams actually pick from among the 3 manufacturers. To get this answer, let’s look at the example of Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).

Joe Gibbs Racing, GM, and Toyota

The story of what happened between JGR, their original partner GM, and Toyota is an interesting one and helps offer huge insight into how and why teams make the choices they do regarding teams.

No team explicitly states the firm reasoning behind their affiliation with manufacturers, and we are largely left to assume that it’s all corporate and financial in nature, and not for us lowly peasants to truly understand. However, JGR’s story helps us to understand a great deal.

JGR was founded back in 1991, and had a long and storied history with its main manufacturing partner, GM. The team used Chevrolet cars initially, then Pontiac cars, and then moved back to Chevrolet cars. After more than a decade and a half, it seemed that this was a marriage that was built to last…until it wasn’t.

In 2007, JGR made the momentous, and frankly shocking to many at the time, move to align themselves with Toyota, the new kids on the block who were actually having a horrendous time in their early NASCAR days, with talk flying all over that Toyota was on the edge of making a humiliating early exit from the sport. It left everyone wondering – why?

Leadership and Influence

The main reason behind the move to Toyota was to gain more influence and control over how the team was run and the direction to go. This is something that JGR had no hope of achieving while aligned with a comfortable and established manufacturer like GM. With Toyota, however, the manufacturer’s crisis was a big opportunity for JGR to step up.

Rising Tide Lifting All Boats

What ultimately happened is that JGR used their considerable knowledge and expertise to make Toyota not just a successful NASCAR team, but a dominant one.

They not only used their own drivers and teams to make the cars winners, but shared the information with other teams running Toyota cars to help the manufacturer raise its status and earn its spot among the big 4 manufacturers at the time. After Dodge pulled out in 2012, that left just the big 3, of which Toyota became an inseparable part of NASCARs race day weekends.

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Choosing the Manufacturer

From JGR’s story, we can learn that a team’s relationship with its manufacturer is critically important, and is guided by a number of key factors. At the top of the list is the desire for a productive, meaningful, and rewarding relationship between the two partners. Underneath that, other factors include:

  • Quality of parts and components
  • Support from the manufacturer in tough times and when encountering technical problems

What all of these have in common is that there is a bond of trust between the two parties, and that forms the foundation of how that team and its manufacturer really come together. The story of JGR could have been very different if JGR’s founders and leaders felt differently about how things might go with GM further down the road.

Conclusion

Although NASCAR drivers may have a say in the manufacturer they drive for if they are established within a team, but these team/manufacturer relationships are developed over years and drivers may be transitory within teams when silly season comes around.

it is possible for teams to change manufacturer and in the case of JGR is has happened however it is rare and it is more often that a manufacturer is approached by a new team joining the sport.

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