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Did You Notice?: Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney & Ford Flailing a Bit to Start NASCAR 2024?

Did You Notice? … Ford has stumbled a bit to start the 2024 NASCAR season?

When we last left off in November, the Blue Ovals had produced a stunning sweep of tripleheader championship weekend, capturing titles in the sport’s Craftsman Truck, Xfinity and Cup series with Ben Rhodes, Cole Custer and Ryan Blaney, respectively. Their performance salvaged a season in which the manufacturer won just eight times at the Cup level, far fewer than rivals Chevy or Toyota.

“We did struggle for sure,” admitted Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance Motorsport, after winning the championship. “Especially in Cup early on certain style tracks. All of our racing teams working together, nobody gave up, they kept digging, certainly came on strong, especially with Team Penske and the 12 car through the playoffs. …

“We’ve had seasons where we won a lot of races and not won a championship. That’s been a disappointment. We didn’t win as many races as we would have liked to this year, but to win three championships just makes a statement.”

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Taking home the hardware turned the narrative of a difficult season for Ford on its head. Introducing a new body style for Cup that weekend was icing on the cake. Teams were switching to the new Mustang Dark Horse style that had a fresh look, improved nose/bumper clips and, in theory, better handling and aerodynamics. 2024 was the year in which momentum was supposed to carry over.

Instead? It’s shaping up to be a repeat of 2023.

Five races into the season, Ford has yet to win a race at the Cup level. In fact, they’re 0-for-across-the-board in all three NASCAR national divisions, posting just a handful of top-five finishes in Xfinity and Trucks.

In the point standings, while it’s still early, Ford drivers make up just three of the 16 available playoff spots in Cup. Chevrolet, by comparison, has seven of their drivers in the current field despite the oldest body style. Both manufacturers have the same number of full-time teams (14) but have achieved very different results thus far in 2024.

Toyota, like Ford, debuted a new body style with its Camry and achieved immediate success on tracks a mile or less. The Toyotas dominated both last Sunday’s (March 17) race at Bristol Motor Speedway and the previous weekend at Phoenix Raceway, leading a whopping 700 out of the last 812 laps run (86.2%).

RFK Racing was the best of the Ford bunch those last two weeks, posting three out of a possible four top-five finishes to move both Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher into playoff position. Yet even after those successful days, the drivers fully admit they don’t have the setup Joe Gibbs Racing had in jumping out to huge leads down the stretch.

“We want to win these races,” Keselowski said after finishing fourth at Phoenix, “but we didn’t have anywhere near the speed the [No.] 20 car [winner Christopher Bell] did.”

Their two-car organization appears to be in the most stable position. Ryan Blaney joins them as the other driver in playoff position, posting a series-high three top fives and coming within inches of a win during that wild three-abreast finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The problem is that Blaney fell inches short. While there’s plenty of time to make up for that, the No. 12 team is now heading into one of their more difficult stretches. The champ’s got one career lap led at Circuit of the Americas and has yet to post better than a seventh at Richmond Raceway in 15 starts. He also was one of a vocal minority of drivers to criticize the Bristol racing Sunday, plummeting from the pole and struggling with tire issues throughout the race en route to 16th.

“Did you enjoy the sh*tshow?” Blaney joked as a scrum of reporters approached him exiting the car. He later walked off rather than answer another round of questions about a budding rival bumping him yet again: Ross Chastain.

It’s a rare moment he’s been out of touch with what the fans are looking for. As I wrote about last fall, the reigning Cup champion has a great opportunity to spark a meteoric rise in both he and the sport’s popularity. Blaney spent the weekend at Bristol talking at length about his goals to become a star like “Jeff Gordon in the Nineties, You Know?”

“You’re successful in your sport,” Blaney said. “They market that person the right way to where they’re very noticed outside of the racetrack and at the racetrack.”

There’s plenty of time for that to happen, but Blaney knows the truth: no matter how much the possibility exists, that marketing won’t happen effectively if he doesn’t start winning in bunches.

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That said, Joey Logano would kill for the type of season his Team Penske teammate has right now. His year began with a public squabble after the Clash at the Coliseum with Ty Gibbs and has been defined by an overall lack of speed during long green-flag runs. Despite two pole positions, Logano has the series’ worst position differential (-94) and has finished worse than where he’s started every week.

That short-run speed versus long-run consistency is what’s dogged Ford throughout the first five events. Ford actually has four of the five pole positions thus far, including a bright spot at Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell. But, like Logano, McDowell has a God-awful position differential (-57) and left points on the table in nearly every event.

Again, NASCAR is a game of inches these days: FRM is running up front more than ever, rising within the Ford camp with McDowell and Todd Gilliland. It’s just a highly competitive industry, one where we’ve seen five winners in five races and small mistakes produce a margin of error that keeps you out of the playoffs.

Those mistakes are plaguing a Stewart-Haas Racing program that should be feeling better about where they’re at. Noah Gragson already has more top 10s (two) than his previous 39 starts at the Cup level. However, he sits 32nd in the standings after improper roof air deflectors cost both him and SHR teammate Ryan Preece 35 points.

Chase Briscoe and rookie Josh Berry have shown flashes of potential, top-five runs that turned into missed opportunities like Berry’s early stop during the final Bristol green-flag run. Briscoe also sparked the ire of some of his competitors, arguably overdriving his car into a wreck at Atlanta and earning the wrath of Erik Jones at Phoenix earlier this month.

Then, there’s a trio who are flat-out underperforming, unable to find the handle on these new Fords. Austin Cindric has three straight finishes outside the top 25 in Penske equipment. Ditto Harrison Burton, who entered the year on the hot seat and has responded by failing to lead a single lap. Preece is the veteran at SHR, yet sits 34th in points, ahead of only rookie Zane Smith.

Along with them, Justin Haley and Kaz Grala are exceeding expectations at Rick Ware Racing, but that’s a relative term; seeing the leaders for the first time is far different than being the leaders. It’ll take some more growth for them to move up.

The beauty of NASCAR’s playoff system for Ford is there’s plenty of time to fix it all. One win on one weekend can put you in the playoffs, erasing the sour taste of a subpar season. You would think the new body style, which should have left Ford a step ahead, will flex its muscle, as crew chiefs adapt and better learn how to work with these offseason changes.

As we saw in Phoenix last November, all you need is one of your cars in the Championship 4 to cash in. Ford had just one dog in the fight in each of the sport’s top three divisions, just three of a 12 possible entries.

They left it three-for-three, ending up with the last laugh.

“That is what makes this Playoff format exciting,” Rushbrook said back in November. “… You’ve got to peak at the right time and have the right finishes at the right time.”

At least they’ve learned from experience. Looks like they might have to do it again.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • Was Bristol the best short track race in history? As I wrote at CBS, you have to consider it by lead changes alone. Only Talladega Superspeedway has produced more this decade than the 54 we saw on Sunday.
  • Kyle Busch looks and sounds frustrated. Austin Dillon has yet to lead lap. At what point does Richard Childress Racing consider internal crew changes on the Cup level? The way Busch struggled at Bristol with tire management was notable considering how other drivers with similar experience charged right to the front.
  • Whether it’s his fault or not, it feels like a whole lot of people have beef with Nick Sanchez in the Truck Series. Or is he just the poster child for veterans fed up with the way some of the young drivers are racing in that division?

Follow Tom at @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Steve

Junk horse ! Come on Ford

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