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Toby's Take: Ford Isn't a Dark Horse Pick to Win Anymore

The Ford Mustang Dark Horse finally got its first NASCAR Cup Series win Sunday at Darlington, and it looks like the manufacturer has really found something in recent weeks.


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Ford, with its new Mustang Dark Horse race car, was the butt of a lot of jokes in the NASCAR Cup Series through the opening 11 races of the season. The manufacturer, which swept all three of NASCAR's National Series championships a season ago, completely revamped the design of its Next-Gen car in the NASCAR Cup Series.

And through the opening 11 races of the season, there surely were some struggles. However, following Brad Keselowski's breakthrough win this weekend at Darlington Raceway, and Chris Buescher's 0.001 sec. near-miss at Kansas Speedway the week before, it's clear that the Ford teams have found something. They're back and with a vengeance.

Sure, you could chalk it up to RFK Racing being the lone Ford team that has truly found something, as Keselowski and his teammate Buescher were the two Ford drivers in the legitimate mix for the race win at Darlington, but when you look at the full run down, you are starting to see more and more Mustang Dark Horses near the front of the field with each passing week.

Darlington continued that trend in a big way.

NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year contender Josh Berry, who drives the No. 4 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing secured a third-place finish in the Goodyear 400, and not far behind him was the No. 14 SHR Ford driven by Chase Briscoe.

Other Fords in the top-10 included Rick Ware Racing's Justin Haley in ninth and Michael McDowell in the No. 34 entry for Front Row Motorsports. In all, Ford had three of the top-five finishers, and five of the top 10, but they could have had even more.

Buescher suffered his second-consecutive heart-breaking defeat as he was contacted in a battle for the lead with 10 laps to go by Tyler Reddick. The contact cut down tires for both Buescher and Reddick, and it led to Buescher finishing 30th.

Noah Gragson, who drives the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing had a really good car on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, but he had to claw his way to the front from the final starting position (36th) in the field. It was a long and methodical climb, but Gragson was able to finish 14th, which marked his eighth top-15 finish of the 2024 season, and his fourth consecutive.

Gragson had just one top-15 finish driving for Chevrolet a season ago.

And then there was Todd Gilliland, who possibly had a car capable of contending with Keselowski, Buescher, and Reddick for the race win. The No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang was THAT good. Unfortunately, the team's pit crew was equally bad, as Gilliland lost positions on pit road all race long, and after being mired in 25th spot with 33 laps to go, any shot at a top finish was foiled.

Still, Gilliland put his head down, went to work, and climbed his way back up to a 15th-place finish, marking his fourth top-15 finish in his last six starts. The No. 38 Ford had legitimate raw speed at Darlington. Just like the No. 6, and the No. 17, and the No. 4, and the No. 14, and, and, and.

While the Goodyear 400 was an impressive display for the blue ovals, the Ford turnaround didn't just magically happen this weekend at Darlington Raceway though. If you were paying close attention, you could see it coming the whole way.

Prior to his win on Sunday, Keselowski had racked up two runner-up efforts already this season. Likewise, Buescher, who is still searching for his first win of the season, has two runner-up finishes, and had it not been for the contact in the closing laps with Reddick, he likely would have a win, or another top-three finish on his record.

In the last nine races, Berry has climbed from 31st in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings to 21st after his third-place finish at Darlington. The rookie sits just two points outside of the top-20.

His teammates Briscoe and Gragson have also had steady climbs in the championship standings over that stretch.

Briscoe has climbed five spots in the standings from 19th to 14th, and Gragson, despite a 35 point penalty earlier in the season, is up to 19th in the championship standings.

Gragson ranked 26th after Phoenix Raceway, the fourth race of the season.

And Gilliland has climbed from 28th to 22nd in that time span.

It's been an impressive turnaround for many of the Ford teams in the last couple of months, and even for the ones that are still struggling to make up ground, it's been a mixture of mistakes, and bad luck that have thwarted their efforts more than a lack of pace in their race cars.

McDowell, who heads into the All-Star Race this weekend with back-to-back 10th-place finishes, suffered from a miserable six-race stretch prior to his current hot streak. McDowell has had fast cars all season long, but a mixture of mechanical problems, and crashes while battling for the lead at Texas and Talladega, resulted in four DNFs in that span. McDowell didn't register a single top-20 finish in that grouping of races.

He's finally getting his finishes, and we're heading into road course season, where McDowell truly shines.

Defending series champion Ryan Blaney was flirting with a race win in the opening four events of the season, but he was crashed by eventual race winner William Byron in the season-opening Daytona 500, and followed that effort up with finishes of second, third, and fifth at Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Blaney has led laps in seven of the 13 races this season, but many times, like this weekend at Darlington, where he was sent crashing after a three-wide move gone wrong by Byron, something out of his control takes him out of contention.

The same could be said about his teammate Joey Logano. When the luck turns around, the Team Penske cars have shown to have enough speed to produce decent results.

It may have taken 13 race weekends for the new Ford Mustang Dark Horse NASCAR Cup Series car to snag its first win, but don't expect the manufacturer to go another 13 races without a win this season.

The Fords are back.

Photo Credit: David Rosenblum, NKP for Ford Performance

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