The Ford Mustang Dark Horse that will compete in the NASCAR Cup Series beginning next season was revealed Wednesday.
The street model of the Dark Horse was unveiled as a street car in late 2022, marking the seventh generation of the Mustang nameplate. Ford has leaned hard into its Mustang heritage, with the brand set to be represented by the Mustang across six continents in 2024.
“It’s been such a great car for us and a great icon for us since 1964, both as a road car and as a race car for that entire time,” Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, told NASCAR.com in a teleconference. “When we as a company made the commitment to have a seventh-generation Mustang for the road, we knew instantly in motorsports that that meant a new wave of Mustangs for us on the race track.”
Indeed, 2023 saw a refresh for the manufacturer in each of its other racing series, ranging from IMSA to Australian Supercars and beyond.
“And then, of course, our bread and butter here in the United States is NASCAR,” Rushbrook said. “When we switched from Fusion to Mustang in Cup in 2019, that was a big deal and something we’ve been very happy to see the success of that car. But now to be updating this Mustang in Cup to the seventh-generation Mustang, and especially the new model with a Mustang Dark Horse, to really make a statement about what Mustang is as a road car, as a sports car and as a race car at the highest level in NASCAR is important.
“And it gives us that opportunity to continue racing Mustang in front of great fans, on great race tracks and to kind of wave the flag for the new Dark Horse version was important for us as well.”
The new body style is set to debut in competition for the exhibition Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 4 with improvements from the 2023 Mustang. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney represents Ford’s chance at a NASCAR Cup Series title in 2023, winning his way into the Championship 4 at Martinsville Speedway and putting the manufacturer in position to take home consecutive driver championships after Joey Logano scored the 2022 triumph.
This season, Fords have won eight of the 35 points-paying races in the Cup Series. Highs include three-win seasons for both Blaney and RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who also advanced to the Round of 8 for the first time in his career. But lows included a span of just two victories in the year’s first 21 races.
“We certainly had strength on certain style (of) tracks, especially superspeedways,” Rushbrook said. “But unfortunately, superspeedways don’t always pan out. And while we had dominant cars and led the most laps in some of those races, we didn’t win all those superspeedways. But we won some of them, and that was important. But we’ve also had some strength on the short tracks, as you’ve seen, especially what Ryan was able to do (Sunday). And we’ve had mixed success on the intermediate tracks.
“Certainly Ryan winning at the Coca-Cola 600 (at Charlotte) was an important win for him and for us and showed that the car can be competitive there but also didn’t convert at a lot of the intermediate tracks. So that’s a lot of learning with the Next Gen car as we’ve had it across ’22 and ’23. And all of that learning has been focused into the targets that were set for the 2024 car that have been delivered to and really optimistic about the race car that we’ll have for 2024.”
Most noticeable on the 2024 Mustang Dark Horse that stands apart from the current model is a sleek new nose on the front end of the high-powered Ford, coupled with character lines that stretch from the fender to the door. The manufacturers in NASCAR — Chevrolet and Toyota, in addition to Ford — have a tight window in which they can manipulate their respective vehicles, Rushbrook said, but still enough room to make a difference.
“Where you are within that box is still important,” he said. “So repositioning as you can to truly optimize that, every little bit of performance counts. But there’s also a lot of performance that simply isn’t characterized in that submission process of how the cars are truly race on these variety of tracks, as well as trade-off decisions that are made in terms of drag versus downforce.
“It’s hard to make improvements in both — we certainly did in this case — but in our ’23 car, maybe some of our trade-offs weren’t in the optimal place that you could see. We were really strong on superspeedways, and that hurt the performance a little bit on the intermediate tracks. So being able to reposition where we are in the box is an important step for us, as well as optimizing some of the detailed racing conditions to make sure we’re the most competitive in all those situations.”
A member of the Ford camp since 2013, Blaney will seek his first championship on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). Rushbrook’s connection with Blaney dates back a decade to the Craftsman Truck Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which marked Rushbrook’s first NASCAR event as part of what was scheduled to be a three-year motorsports assignment.
“He was young and very early in his career,” Rushbrook said with a laugh. “And when I think back to that point in time, that Ryan Blaney, and what we’ve seen him develop into both as a race car driver sitting inside the car but also a person and a leader outside of the car, it’s been great to watch that. And I even made a comment to him at the beginning of the season after one of our meetings, just how happy we were with where he is and that maturity level and a leader across, not just within Team Penske, but as we work with all of our drivers across all of our teams. He’s become a leader in that process as well, which we really appreciate.
“He’s still young. But he’s got a great head on his shoulders and certainly knows how to wheel the car OK and look forward to seeing what he can do on Sunday.”