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Yates' slump start of bad news for Ford

With both of its veteran drivers leaving, Robert Yates Racing has magnified the struggles that Ford teams have endured all season.

By BRANT JAMES
Published August 13, 2006


Kasey Kahne has had his own problems to worry about since coming to Evernham Motorsports as a talented and controversial prospect.

The 2004 Nextel Cup rookie of the year nearly made the first Chase for the Championship that year, but fell from ninth to 12th in the final regular season race at Richmond. Then last season he won just once and fell to 23rd in points.

This year, though tied for the series wins lead (four) with points leader Jimmie Johnson, Kahne is again battling to make the Chase. He stands 11th five weeks before the playoffs, but has finished better than 23rd once since winning June 18 at Michigan.

All in all, it still beats the alternative. He could be at Robert Yates Racing, a championship-winning team in the process of razing and rebuilding.

Kahne, 26, came up through Ford's driver development program but left for Evernham's Dodges when the manufacturer could not arrange a suitable ride. Robert Yates had fielded a Busch Series car for Kahne in 2002, but had no interest in giving him a Cup ride. Ford sued for breach of contract when Kahne signed with Evernham, but the case was dismissed in federal court last July.

It's debatable how each side's future would have been altered had Yates not made what now seems like a horrible mistake. Maybe RYR would be a stable three-car program with Elliott Sadler and former champion Dale Jarrett. Maybe Kahne would not have developed in time to change Yates' fate.

"I'm happy the way everything happened, but I wish at times that some of that stuff hadn't gone on because I don't personally enjoy being in a lawsuit," Kahne said. "But I'm happy with where I'm at. If I would have been at Robert Yates Racing I would have struggled just as bad as Elliott Sadler. This sport relies a lot on your race cars and people working on them."

Yates began noticing the cracks a year ago. Sadler made the 2004 Chase, fooling the organization into thinking it was on equal footing with larger teams taking control of Nextel Cup. But when Sadler faltered badly, joining Jarrett in the middle of the pack, it became evident to the engine-building wizard and old-school thinker that his team had hit on a quick fix, not a permanent solution. Building upon Sadler's fleeting success took the team down a long path that has since led to ruin.

Sadler is 22nd in points, Jarrett 24th and they've combined for three wins since 2004.

"Everybody changing things up every week, we couldn't get any consistency from day one," said former Sadler crew chief Tommy Baldwin. "And it's nobody's fault, that's just how it ended up being."

Since the season began, Jarrett and Sadler announced they would leave in 2007; Jarrett for the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota startup (taking sponsor UPS with him) and Sadler for an unannounced team after invoking an escape clause.

"If I were in Robert and (Yates' son and engine builder) Doug's shoes, you always think that you can fix things," Jarrett said. "There were a lot of things here that we've talked about for a number of years. We kind of started down that path a few times and then we kind of made a U-turn and came back around and didn't quite get there."

General manager Eddie D'Hondt was fired after being blamed for allowing Sadler to go. Baldwin and Slugger Labbe, Jarrett's crew chief, were released. Baldwin became competition director at Bill Davis Racing with Yates' encouragement. RYR announced Wednesday that Todd Parrott would return after serving as a crew chief there for nearly a decade. Parrott had helped produce momentum for a stagnant Petty Enterprises No. 43 Dodge this season.

It is a tough year for Ford in general with three wins in 21 races; it had nine by this point last year.

All five Roush Racing Fords made the Chase last year but Greg Biffle (12th), Carl Edwards (14th) and Jamie McMurray (19th) are on the outside. (McMurray's No. 26 was the No. 97 driven by Kurt Busch last year).

Edwards said there is no common thread with the Ford struggles, but Biffle said his cars have been down. He called his No. 16 Ford at Pocono "the worst car I've ever driven in a race since I've started racing."

Yates could begin next season with rookies Stephen Leicht and David Gilliland, and even less hope of competing again anytime soon.