Tom Bowles
Thursday August 13th, 2009

For years, NASCAR's success on the race track has been synonymous with Fords in Victory Lane. With nearly 600 wins over six decades of Cup Series competition, Ford has been one of NASCAR's dominant forces.

But as the series heads to Michigan this weekend, the Blue Ovals find themselves feeling blue at the track. A season that started promisingly, with Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500 and California back in February, has devolved into a serious slump for a company struggling to find its footing in the midst of strong performances from Dodge, Toyota, and especially longtime-rival Chevrolet.

"I won't pull any punches," said Ford's Director of Technology, Brian Wolfe. "It's a big disappointment. Not in my worst nightmare would I have believed we'd have two wins [at this point in the season]. We had such a strong finish last year and came into this one with some momentum, so we thought this would be a pretty strong year for us."

Indeed, Carl Edwards' two wins over the final three races of '08 had Ford hopping on the fast track to success. But that train got derailed sometime during the first 20 laps of Las Vegas in March, where Kenseth's winning streak blew up along with his engine. He finished dead last in what started a 20-race drought for Ford, it's longest since 1982-83. Putting just one car in the top 10 in points to date (Edwards -- sixth), the manufacturer could also be on track for its worst performance in the driver's championship since that '82 season, when Buicks dominated the circuit and a 31-year-old Dale Earnhardt was their best-performing driver in 12th.

All the struggles have led to a basic question: what's wrong? The answer isn't easy to pinpoint. Bad luck has certainly been a part of it, as Wolfe explains, the engine program threw the teams a curve early on.

"We had some suppliers who'd done valve material that was not to specification. It caused us some really rough going in the third, fourth, fifth race," Wolfe explained. "We had a little bit of bad luck, things that shouldn't happen and unfortunately did."

Of course, that's no secret. Edwards had this to add: "If you look at the history of every team, almost every team you go through has peaks and troughs. Look, I wish more than anything I had five wins this year and we were leading the points. We were good enough to do that last year ... I truly believe we're just in a trough of performance based on the way the sport goes."

But in the race to find the most downforce, Ford has clearly fallen a step behind Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing over at Chevrolet. While both of SHR's two cars have come out swinging, with Stewart leading the standings, Ford's "B" team at Yates Racing has just one top-5 finish and isn't even challenging for the top 25 in points. Short and flat tracks have also posed a particular weakness; Fords are without a top 5 this season on tracks less than one mile in length (and just two on the one-mile ovals of Dover, Phoenix, and Loudon).

"[At] Bristol, there wasn't a good excuse for how poor we performed there early this year," Wolfe said. "It's not the shortness of the track, also the attitude of the banks [that has hurt us at some of these places]. But typically, the flatter, shorter tracks are where we have struggled, and we are doing extra work to try and help get the chassis set up to where they need to be."

While the in-house testing works with special chassis tools like the FRAM and Adams to try to improve the program, the teams still struggle out-of-house, even when they get those setups right. There have been communication and pit road issues across the board, with two of the top teams in the Blue Oval camp (Edwards and Greg Biffle) needing major adjustments to their crews in the face of bad stops and poor pit strategy. In that case, it's not so much the driver/crew chief relationship that's suffered as much as the crew's ability to get them out in front in clean air. And during a season in which track position becomes especially critical, a few extra seconds in the pits has meant the difference between 5th and 15th. Yet while that's admittedly caused in-race bouts of frustration, the teams have tried hard to focus on learning from their mistakes and moving on.

"We can't self-destruct," Edwards says. "We can't start fighting within the team."

Some have said Ford's new engine, in production for over a year, will be a major boost once the FR9 debuts on the Cup level. Contrary to earlier reports, the new engine is scheduled to be phased in no later than the start of the Chase, in September. Why the delay? While the new power plant should give the teams a few extra horsepower, the teams don't feel like that's the source of their problems -- so the last thing they want is to add something that could have early reliability issues during the playoff push.

"It's not like on long straightaways the Fords fall back and catch up on the turns. The engine [we have now], we don't think is giving us a significant disadvantage," Wolfe said. "And anytime you have something that has new systems interaction, there's something called unintended consequences, something that bites you. You want to [take the time] and make sure you're getting all your homework done."

In the meantime, Ford will look to regroup in the final four races at a track that's long been their biggest strength. With both Ford and top team Roush Fenway Racing's roots in Michigan, the manufacturer has dominated at the 2-mile oval each summer, with RFR putting at least one car in Cup Series Victory Lane there every year since 2002. And while other manufacturers ponder their future in the sport, Ford's uptick in marketing sales leaves their motorsports budget secure for the foreseeable future. Since Ford is the only one of the "Big Three" not to declare bankruptcy, don't be surprised if their small fleet of seven full-time cars actually expands by a team or two heading into 2010. The surprising success of the Wood Brothers on a limited schedule leaves hopes for some more races next year, and newly-formed RCM Racing is also looking to align itself with the Blue Oval.

"There is an energy in the Ford Camp," says owner Rick Clark, whose team runs with driver Boris Said. "I want to be part of the next big thing. Look at how strong Boris ran during Watkins Glen; he was in the top 5 before we had grass uptake cause an overheating problem."

But with the Fall fast approaching, this weekend looms critical for a manufacturer that expected its slump to bottom out months ago. "You don't want to say it's a must win," says Wolfe of Sunday's race. "But it's really close to that."

One team whose future is uncertain in the Ford camp is Jamie McMurray's No. 26. The intent is to find sponsorship for that team and move it to Yates Racing for 2010, but with RFR still looking to fill some races on Matt Kenseth's No. 17, it's been slow going finding funding for that fifth car. In the meantime, speculation runs rampant that McMurray has been talking to Chip Ganassi about reuniting for 2010, with the veteran sliding behind the wheel of the No. 1 car Martin Truex, Jr. will vacate at the end of the season to replace retiring Michael Waltrip.


In a nightmare season for Richard Childress Racing, perhaps no one has suffered more than Jeff Burton. Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya should switch paint schemes, because while Montoya bulldozes the competition, his red target bulls-eye has been placed squarely on Burton's No. 31. Since the first Michigan race in June, Burton has either had a flat or wrecked in eight straight races. During that time, he's fallen from 10th in points to 18th, 335 out of the Chase with just four races left to go.

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