Ford still winless in 2024 as NASCAR heads to first road race of the season at COTA

FILE - Shane van Gisbergen gets ready for a practice session for an ARCA Mendards Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 15, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. The NASCAR race at Circuit of the Americas, Sunday, March 24, 2024, will be first of five on road or street courses this season, and will be the Cup Series debut for last season’s New Zealand debutant van Gisbergen. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

FILE – Shane van Gisbergen gets ready for a practice session for an ARCA Mendards Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 15, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. The NASCAR race at Circuit of the Americas, Sunday, March 24, 2024, will be first of five on road or street courses this season, and will be the Cup Series debut for last season’s New Zealand debutant van Gisbergen. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Five races into NASCAR’s 2024 season and Ford is in a funk.

Make no mistake, the Ford cars have been fast, just not quite fast enough to produce any wins yet. At the race in Atlanta, the razor-thin margins at the finish meant 0.003 seconds was the difference between first and third.

But winning is what counts the most and Ford drivers are searching for answers to break the drought as NASCAR holds its first road race of the season Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas.

“Been close to a couple of (wins),” said last season’s Cup series champion Ryan Blaney, who just missed out on the victory in Atlanta and has three top-five finishes. “I don’t really get into panic mode too easily. Just understand it is a long year.”

A Ford win in Austin would seem like a long shot in NASCAR’s fourth run on a track built for Formula One. Road course specialists Tyler Reddick (Toyota), New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen (Chevrolet) and Chase Elliott (Chevrolet) rate among the race favorites.

Chevrolet has three wins and Toyota has two this season, as Ford teams and drivers try to understand the nuances of the Mustang Dark Horse body style that was supposed to provide better handling and aerodynamics.

No Ford driver qualified in the top 10 for Sunday’s race. And while it’s still early, Ford drivers make up just three of the 16 available Cup playoff spots. Blaney tops that short list at fourth.

Ford drivers point to some solid statistics, even if the major results are lacking.

“I know it doesn’t look good on paper when you say that we haven’t had a Ford in Victory Lane yet,” said RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher, who is currently 14th in the Cup standings.

“Look at our year and how competitive we’ve been. We’ve been able to lead in four of the five races at some point. And when we didn’t lead any laps, we finished second. So to me, we’ve been very good. We’ve certainly had a little bit of rough luck,” Buescher said.

Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing said Fords have shown good “raw speed.”

“I feel like we’ve had the speed, we just haven’t been able to put the races together as a manufacturer,” Briscoe said. “This week will be probably, truthfully, another struggle for the Fords to win. We just don’t have as many good road racers as the other manufacturers have.”

Briscoe noted how Ford ended last season with Blaney’s championship.

“If you would have looked at us last year, you would have never thought a Ford was going to win a championship and then it did,” Briscoe said. “Hopefully when it matters, Ford is going to be strong.”

ON POLE

Daytona 500 winner William Bryon will start from pole position on Sunday, with Ty Gibbs, Reddick and Christopher Bell the top qualifiers right behind him. Byron earned his only career road course win last year at Watkins Glen.

NASCAR vs F1

The Circuit of the Americas is the only track used by NASCAR and F1, but the two racing series have vastly different styles. F1 cars lap the 3.4-mile (5.5 kilometers) circuit, with its steep elevation changes and 20 turns, about 30 seconds faster than the stock cars. F1 also races with much stricter track limits than NASCAR.

NASCAR will be enforcing track limits through a series of s-curves in the first sector. But look for drivers to use every bit of the sweeping runoff areas around several turns, most notably on No. 19 before the cars enter pit row.

“I think the guys are off the track more than they are on it,” said van Gisbergen, who is making his Cup series season debut on the road course. “You forget how much elevation it has. The TV doesn’t give it justice. It’s a really cool track.”

NEW RESTART

After last season’s multiple restarts and overtime finish at COTA, the restart zone has been moved from the start/finish line to the exit of the final turn heading into the front stretch.

The change should help spread the field before it powers into the uphill switchback turn No. 1 that created so many crashes and restarts last year.

“Restarts can be exciting for people to watch for sure, but they get to be kind of a crapshoot,” Blaney said. “It will still be wild, but hopefully it would be under more control.”

GAMBLING

NASCAR has been leaning into sports betting in recent years. Reddick, last season’s winner at COTA, said there’s a new level of engagement with fans.

“My favorite one is, ‘Don’t screw up today, I’ve got a lot riding on you,’” Reddick said. “Fans love to chime and let you know what they’ve got riding on it.”

ODDS & ENDS

Reddick is the betting favorite to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook … The first five races this season produced five different winners. The longest streak of different winners in the “modern” era of NASCAR (1972-present) was 10 in 2000.

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