NASCAR manufacturer's struggles being 'sensationalized'?

Ford's struggles have been no secret to start the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season. But are their shortcoming being "sensationalized"?
Austin Cindric, Team Penske, Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Ford, NASCAR
Austin Cindric, Team Penske, Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Ford, NASCAR / James Gilbert/GettyImages

To say that Ford have not had the start to the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season they would have wanted would be a major understatement through the first 13 points races.

The Blue Oval manufacturer finally secured their first win -- in any NASCAR national series -- two Sunday afternoons ago at Darlington Raceway, with RFK Racing's Brad Keselowski finding victory lane for the first time in over three years.

Year number one of the Dark Horse Ford Mustang has not gone according to plan, with Team Penske's Ryan Blaney leading the manufacturer in the point standings in a modest eighth place. The reigning series champion is Ford's only driver inside the top 10.

Ford, Team Penske struggling

Teammate Joey Logano, who won the 2018 and 2022 championships, sits in 17th place in the point standings with just three top 10 finishes, placing him below the provisional playoff cut line.

But Austin Cindric, who sits three positions lower than Logano, remains optimistic, both about the manufacturer's progression and about Team Penske's outlook specifically.

"I think that's the key, if you're not where you want to be, you've got to be improving, and certainly focused on improving, so I think you start to see some of that," Cindric told Beyond the Flag. "Obviously had a Ford in victory lane [at Darlington], so I think as a team, you have to look at that and go, okay, it's possible -- not that we necessarily didn't think it was."

Cindric believes that Ford's Cup Series struggles have been somewhat sensationalized since the drought also included the Xfinity Series and the Truck Series.

"I think the narrative has been pretty aggressive," he admitted. "Just because it's somewhat more sensationalized, I feel like, because that hadn't happened in all three series, a Ford hadn't won up until that weekend."

Ford turning things around after rough start?

As the Ford teams continue to adjust to the new Dark Horse Ford Mustang, Cindric is encouraged with the recent progress.

"There's been a lot of hard work put in the offseason with this new package with the Dark Horse Ford Mustang, so I think for us it's great to see that hard work paid off, at least for that weekend," he continued.

"It's a collaborative effort between all the teams, as well as Ford Performance, so [we're] certainly making gains on our side as well to kind of understand what it takes to unlock some of that performance."

Halfway through the regular season, he remains optimistic.

"I think we all still do feel like we've taken a bit of a step forward from where we were at as a manufacturer last year, so yeah, looking forward to seeing that throughout the year."

Though Ford's first win of the 2024 NASCAR season didn't come until mid-May at Darlington, they have been in position to win three of the four most recent Cup Series points races on the last lap.

At Talladega Superspeedway, it looked like it would come down to a battle between Keselowski, Front Row Motorsports' Michael McDowell, and Stewart-Haas Racing's Noah Gragson. Contact coming to the checkered flag handed the win to 23XI Racing's Tyler Reddick and Toyota.

Then at Kansas Speedway two weeks later, RFK Racing's Chris Buescher was declared the winner initially, before a further review determined that it was actually Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson who finished 0.001 seconds ahead of the No. 17 Ford in his No. 5 Chevrolet.

Though those races didn't result in wins, and Team Penske Fords weren't specifically among those in the fight, the manufacturer's pace hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I would say confidence-inspiring is probably the best way to put it, just because obviously the last two weeks it hasn't been one of the three of us contending for that win, but we have the same engine package, we have the same aero package on the car," Cindric said.

"So we've got enough smart people here, and I feel like our driver lineup is obviously talented enough, the two past champions on the team, and I'd like to think I can hang in there myself. So yeah, for us, I think that's a great motivation to get to work and to kind of close that gap."

Team Penske did end up earning a victory at North Wilkesboro Speedway this past weekend, but it came in the non-points All-Star Race. Logano dominated the event to secure the win.

Cindric currently finds himself in 20th place in the point standings, 90 points below the cut line. Halfway through the regular season, he hasn't totally ruled out getting into the playoffs on points, but he knows that it's probably going to take a win, something he hasn't achieved since the won the 2022 season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

"I think if I get one more goose egg it will," Cindric admitted. "Kansas was definitely a big negative with having a pretty good day closed out to pretty much zero points. Those days just can't exist for me anymore because they’ve happened too often so far this year, and I think we have the speed certainly to be just on the edge of that conversation, right on that bubble."

Nine of the season's first 13 races have ended with Cindric outside of the top 20.

"I would certainly like to see more from myself and from our team just to be that one step higher," he continued. "A win makes everything so much easier, and it's that much more important to be able to solidify your spot.

"The margins are small, in my opinion, with the number of guys who win races each year. At least the last few years, only one or two guys are really pointing their way in, so I think the message is pretty clear. But points are still definitely important to us."

Cindric is confident that the second half of the 26-race regular season schedule can provide himself and the No. 2 team with plenty of opportunities to find victory lane.

"I feel like the superspeedways have been really good to us this year as far as a company," he said. "I feel like every superspeedway race we've been to, Team Penske has brought the three fastest race cars to the race track and had three great chances to win the race. Obviously it's frustrating to sit here and say that we haven't done that, but I feel like those tracks we can come to with a lot of confidence to be able to contend for those wins."

He also picked out a few other possibilities.

"I think there are some fun wild cards coming up with Indianapolis, a repave at Sonoma, Iowa, I think Gateway has been a good track for us as a company. I think those tracks probably stand out over the norm. Past that, I think there are plenty of opportunities for us to be able to go run well."

The season's next race is the Coca-Cola 600, which is scheduled to take place at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 26. Blaney won last year's running.

IndyCar's Indy 500 is scheduled to take place beforehand at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Cindric plans to watch.

Team Penske is the only team competing full-time in both NASCAR and IndyCar. Their IndyCar drivers include Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin, and Will Power. Newgarden is the reigning Indy 500 winner, and Power won it in 2018.

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"I can't bet against the Penske boys, man, and I don't just say that because of the shirt I'm wearing," Cindric stated. "I just feel like I feel like those guys have done their homework this year, so I'll be excited to watch, that's for sure. That's my favorite race."