Ford’s NASCAR Fusion, which made its debut on the weekend, represents an approach to developing race cars the auto maker hasn’t employed in decades.

At the urging of Ford and other auto makers competing in NASCAR, the racing organization allowed for greater customization of competition cars beginning this season. Previously, strict NASCAR rules made every car look nearly identical, taking most of the “stock” out of stockcar racing.

“We are a car company. This is car racing,” says Jamie Allison, director-Ford Racing. “This was a great opportunity to work with NASCAR on creating cars that people see on the racetrack that really look like what they have at home. The opportunity to bring back identity to these cars is something fans have asked for, something NASCAR led, and something we as a manufacturer enabled.”

Under the new NASCAR guidelines, race cars still have to have some identical components, including the wheel wells, greenhouse and spoiler. But now auto makers have more freedom to imbue their own touches, making the vehicles more closely resemble the production models on which they are based.

The results have been promising so far, as three Fusions placed among the top-10 finishers in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24. Still to be seen is whether that will translate into showroom traffic for the sedan.

Ford designers did the initial clay sculpting of the race car, sitting side-by-side with its production counterpart, which has been heralded by critics and has performed well in the market.

It marks the first time since the late 1960s the Ford Design Center in Dearborn, MI, has been actively involved in the creation of a NASCAR race car.

The first fullsize clay model was shown to NASCAR officials and Ford drivers and teams in 2011. From there, Ford designers and aerodynamic engineers began work to meet NASCAR-mandated aero targets, all the while striving to maintain the look of the production model.

Following the debut of the production Fusion at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford unveiled the race car. After testing on the track, further aero work was conducted using both the wind tunnel and computational fluid dynamics, the auto maker says.

By mid-2012, stamping of the sheet metal began in Michigan, and Ford race teams began testing the cars.

Having a competition car that closely resembles the production model serves as a marketing tool for Ford and other auto makers, Allison says.

“Racing helps drive our business,” he says. “Fans may be at the races because they love cars, but then to add the relevancy of the cars we race looking like the cars they own, well, it just adds that emotional connection between us and the fans that we all seek.”

bpope@wardsauto.com