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Long: Stewart-Haas’ departure leaves many questions for Chevrolet, its teams

Stewart-Haas racing will switch to Ford next season. Beginning in 2017, Stewart-Haas will run Ford Fusions and has plans to build their own chassis in-house.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s announcement Wednesday that it will move to Ford after this season gives Chevrolet and its teams a year to prepare for the change, although that might not be enough time to handle all of the questions facing each.

The move weakens Chevrolet — Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last five Sprint Cup titles — and leaves a vacuum in the power structure, while creating questions about the engine programs two Chevy teams have.

Stewart-Haas’ announcement comes days after Toyota showed the value in its teams working together in the Daytona 500. Denny Hamlin gave Toyota its first Daytona 500 win and Joe Gibbs Racing its first since 1993. Toyota went on to take the top three spots and four of the top five.

Toyota also has won the most recent Sprint Cup championship, along with the most recent Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600 — the sport’s most prestigious races.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s decision marks the second time in the last decade one of Chevrolet’s strongest teams left. Joe Gibbs Racing joined Toyota in 2008.

When Gibbs left, Stewart-Haas Racing eventually became one of Chevrolet’s top teams. The question is, “Which Chevrolet team does so this time behind Hendrick Motorsports?”

There’s Richard Childress Racing, a three-car Cup team that last captured a Sprint Cup championship in 1994 and last won a Cup race in 2013. RCR, though, does have young drivers Austin and Ty Dillon. There’s Chip Ganassi Racing, a two-car Cup team that never has won a series title and last won a race in 2013. It has Kyle Larson, who is looked upon as one of the sport’s future stars.

The only other multicar Cup team aligned with Chevrolet this season is HScott Motorsports, and it is expected to return to a one-car team operation next year with Clint Bowyer leaving to take Tony Stewart’s ride.

Other teams aligned with Chevrolet this season are single-car operations - JTG Daugherty, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Germain Racing and Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing. Those teams have combined for one Cup win and do not have a full-time driver under the age of 31. All four are aligned with Richard Childress Racing.

Another key question is if there is a way to combine the engine work by Hendrick Motorsports and ECR Engines. Hendrick will lose Stewart-Haas Racing’s four teams as a client after this season, and there doesn’t appear to be another team Hendrick can add among the Chevy contingent.

SHR’s departure leaves Hendrick supplying Cup engines for Chip Ganassi Racing and HScott Motorsports. Hendrick also supplies engines for JR Motorsports’ Xfinity and Truck teams, Athenian Motorsports’ Xfinity and Truck teams for John Wes Townley and Ganassi’s Xfinity team.

ECR Engines supplies all three of Richard Childress’ Cup teams, along with JTG Daugherty, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing. ECR Engines supply engines for all of RCR’s Xfinity teams, along with RSS Racing, Kaulig Racing and GMS Racing. ECR Engines also supply GMS Racing’s Camping World Truck teams and NEMCO Motorsport’s Truck team, along with some IMSA teams.

It might be time for Chevrolet to broker a way to merge ECR Engines with Hendrick’s engine shop. Toyota has only one engine supplier (Toyota Racing Development) for its top Cup teams, and Ford has only one engine supplier (Roush Yates Engines) for its top Cup teams.

Of course, merging the two Chevy engine programs would be more complicated than simply calling for it.

If nothing else, Chevrolet likely needs to step in and play a greater role in organizing its teams and structure to be more competitive with Ford and Toyota teams beginning next season.

Stewart said the move to Ford was best for the organization in the long run. It’s similar to the view of Joe Gibbs Racing when making its move from Chevrolet to Toyota. When Gibbs moved, it went from being under the shadow of Hendrick - Chevrolet’s No. 1 team - to No. 1 with Toyota.

Stewart-Haas Racing has the potential to make such a move with Ford, although Team Penske holds that spot for now. Even if those teams are co-No. 1 teams, the move still holds much promise.

“The sport evolves so fast that there are aspects of it that you realize as time goes on if you’re going to truly put yourself in a position to be at the top of the field each week, there are things you have to do on your own,’’ Stewart said Wednesday.

“Everyone in upper management all agreed that this was the right thing for our company, and we were committed to being able to do this and do it in the right way. We put over six months of thought into it and after that we realized that we feel very comfortable with this decision to branch out and do what we’re doing now.”

Now, it’s up to Chevrolet and its teams to fill the gap of losing Stewart-Haas Racing and remain competitive.

Follow @dustinlong