Ford performance enthusiasts are fond of saying that Ford really stands for “First On Race Day.” Yet so far in 2009, the Blue Oval brigade has embodied the alternate acronym of their namesake foisted upon them by Chevrolet, Mopar, Pontiac and just about any other pocket of automotive resistance you can find that would cruelly laugh in the face of their faltering. The translation is the same, except the “F” does not stand for “First.”
You can probably figure out the rest of that one for yourself.
To say that the Ford teams have struggled a bit this year to keep pace with the competition would be a bit of an understatement. In 22 races to date this season, Ford has won but twice – both wins courtesy of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Fusion of Matt Kenseth. Those were the first two wins of the season, one of which was a restrictor plate track in the Daytona 500 – a race he won largely by taking the lead just as it started raining. The rest of Kenseth’s cohorts at Roush Fenway have not won this year either, and even chances to run up front have been few and far between. The last two times a Ford was seriously in contention for victory was in June at Michigan International Speedway, when on the final lap, Greg Biffle ran out of gas about one mile way from the finish line. The other was Carl Edwards at Talladega in April, as he too was about a quarter of a mile from the finish line when he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
And Ryan Newman’s windshield. I think we all remember how that one ended up…
Anyways, the remainder of the Ford contingent – and let’s face it, there aren’t many of them – has struggled mightily this year as well. 2009 was supposed to be the breakout year for David Ragan, the season that he won his first career race and made the Chase after coming so close last year, missing the cutoff by a mere 77 points. But so far in 2009, it has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster in the former flagship No. 6 car, with no top fives and a lone top-10 finish in the first race of the year in Daytona – along with having led only three more laps than I have. You know things are bad when you’re battling me on a stat sheet….
Ragan did win his first career Nationwide Series race at Talladega, with a legitimate highlight reel pass to pull out a win in the last couple hundred yards on the final lap. Naturally, he was then promptly plucked out of his ride in favor of Roush Fenway Camping World Truck Series driver, Erik Darnell.
Meanwhile, across the way in the land of misfit Fords at Yates Racing, there have been flashes of brilliance from the No. 98 team of Paul Menard. Those have been fleeting, however, as a good run is typically soured by a blown tire, an accident or something out of control of the team or driver. A shame really, as I have always felt that given a decent car and some semblance of luck, Menard would be able to build some momentum and confidence at the sport’s top level. Having no real teammates, however, cannot help matters any, and brings up the old question again of why Travis Kvapil’s No. 28 team was allowed to dissolve into nothingness after producing consistent finishes for well over a year.
That being said, do we really even need to get into Jamie McMurray’s situation? I didn’t think so. That would just depress us all… I think you get the picture at this point.
There does, however, appear to be a silver lining to this dark, ominous cloud that seems to follow the Fords wherever they have gone in 2009. Hopefully, that silver thing isn’t really a bolt of lightning that will strike one of them (and after the weather we’ve experienced the past two weekends, it wouldn’t really surprise me. But I digress…) Turns out that bolt of lightning could very well be a bolt of horsepower, coming in the form of the new Ford FR9 engine that is expected to run this weekend at the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
While it is not clear yet what teams will indeed to be running the new engine, it is welcome relief for a manufacturer that has been working what by most accounts has been an outdated and antiquated engine that has been largely unchanged since 1992 (save for a cylinder head refreshening in 2004.) The new engine features vastly improved cooling, allowing the Ford teams to run more tape on the nose of the cars, increasing downforce and decreasing drag.
The fact that we’re going to Michigan at all should be a welcome relief to the Ford teams. Not only is it in their manufacturer’s backyard, for as long as the track has been in existence, it has seemingly favored Ford cars. From David Pearson’s performances throughout the 1970s in his Mercurys, Bill Elliott’s dominance in his iconic Melling Racing No. 9 Coors Thunderbirds in the 1980s, and up through the 1990s, which saw Rusty Wallace win twice in a Ford, Dale Jarrett three times and four by Mark Martin. And let’s not forget Ernie Irvan’s emotional final career win at MIS in 1997 at the track that nearly claimed his life just a few years earlier in 1994. Of the 18 races held so far this decade alone, Fords have conspired to win half of them, with Edwards the defending champion of the event this weekend.
With regards to the new engine package that Ford will likely unveil, one of the likely candidates to serve as a rolling test bed (i.e., guinea pig) for the new powerplant would be the No. 21 Wood Brothers entry for Elliott. Elliott, as mentioned before, helped build his legend at this track, having won seven races throughout the years – including four straight wins as he swept the 1985 and 1986 seasons. Elliott and the Woods ran well here this past June, finishing 16th – wholly respectable for a team that chooses its battles wisely, taking the Furniture Row Racing approach to things and only racing when it makes sense.
As for the man behind the wheel, the 1988 champion is 53 years old and nearing the end of the road driving-wise. Could Michigan be the site of his final triumph? It would be a fitting sendoff for a number of reasons.
Consider back in the early 1980s, as the “old car” that we refer to now with the advent of the CoT was just in its infancy. Ford had been out of the racing game for years, but with the advent of their SVO and Motorsport programs was beginning to make a resurgence back into competition, and oval-track racing to be sure. As Tom Bowles mentions in his Did You Notice? piece today, after winning only twice in 1982, it was a Wood Brothers Ford that ended a 33-race winless drought at Daytona in July of 1983.
Coming into Michigan this weekend, it hasn’t quite been that long at only 20 races, but if things are going to turn around, what better weekend to do it? The defending race winner is in a Ford, the previous race here likely would have been won by a Ford had it been for one more accelerator pump shot of fuel, and the most winning active driver at MIS in Cup competition will be showing up this weekend, possibly packing some new hardware between the fenders of his Ford Fusion. With a little bit of luck, there very well could be something to cheer about in Dearborn on Monday morning.
Fans of the Blue Ovals certainly hope so at this point. Because with the way the Fords have run so far this season, they’re going to need all the help they can get so they’re not You-Know-What once again On Race Day.