BROOKLYN, Mich. — Greg Biffle spent some time at Ford headquarters on Thursday, taking each of the resilient automaker's newest toys out for a spin.
The veteran NASCAR driver, while admittedly a little biased toward the company whose name is splashed across the grille of his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing car, was impressed.
"They are building such great products while the other companies are trying to get back at it," Biffle said. "I wish we could hold our end of the bargain up. We are carrying that banner out here."
They're just not carrying it to Victory Lane.
A Ford car hasn't taken the checkered flag in a Cup race since Jamie McMurray won at Talladega last fall. It'll take some doing to end the drought during Sunday's 400-miler at Michigan, where only one of the 12 Ford drivers to make the field qualified in the top 10 behind pole sitter Kurt Busch.
Ford's struggles on the track play in stark contrast to the resurgence the company has found in the showroom, where the only one of America's Big Three automakers to not take any federal bailout money is thriving. May sales were up 22 percent over the same month in 2009, according to Ford — the sixth straight month the company saw at least a 20-percent jump in year-over-year sales.
The mood in Detroit is considerably brighter than it was a year ago. The same can't be said in the garages of Ford's two top Cup teams, Roush Fenway and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Though RFR drivers Matt Kenseth (fourth), Carl Edwards (ninth) and Greg Biffle (10th) find themselves in the top 10 in points with 12 races remaining before the cutoff for the Chase, they're not exactly optimistic about catching up with Joe Gibbs Racing's Toyota's or Hendrick Motorsports' Chevrolet's anytime soon.
"We seem to be a ways off more times than not," Kenseth said. "You do want to pass all those guys, but right now I would be happy if we were the same and able to race them."
Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. A Ford car has led just 410 of a possible 2,413 laps this season, well behind each of the series' other three manufacturers.
There's hope that help is on the way with the arrival and maturation of the new FR9 engines. The motors, designed by Roush Yates Engines, have slowly been phased in over the last eight months and will be in all eight of the RFR and RPM cars on Sunday.
RFR owner Jack Roush says the new FR9 engine is "marginally better" than the previous spec engine Ford drivers have used, and the onus is on teams to start coming through.
"You say what is wrong with the Fords? The teams aren't getting it done," said Roush, who has won 11 times at Michigan, tied for most all-time.
The drivers argue the issue with the Ford teams isn't the engine but the handling. Edwards, one of the hottest drivers on the planet just two years ago, has been dealing with the same balance difficulties in the corners all season.
"The problem is how fast the car can go through the center of the corner and the balance," he said. "The engine is a separate thing."
Edwards uses words like "reliable" and "powerful" to describe the FR9. He doesn't use "great." Though he calls it "as good as or better than the old engine" he's not ready to say it's on par with what's under the hood at Hendrick or JGR.
"It would be nice for us to have an engine that everybody else is trying to catch up to, instead of us trying to catch up to them," he said. "We have to figure out how to be the guys everyone is trying to catch. It's a lot easier when you're in that position."
Ford hasn't been there for a while. The best finish by a Ford driver this season is Kenseth's runner-up effort at Atlanta in March. And while the teams are quick to point out the currently winless drought is "only" 18 races, it certainly feels longer than that.
Besides, McMurray's win last season comes with an asterisk since it was at Talladega, where the victor is often the driver that can survive the carnage.
Throw that race out and Ford hasn't won since Kenseth captured the Daytona 500 and the ensuing race in California to open the 2009 season. In the interim Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge — which is down to one major team in Penske Racing after RPM announced it was moving to Ford last fall — have won 47 of the last 48 races.
It's not exactly encouraging, though Roush has credited his drivers for remaining resolute. He's confident things will turn around, but it might not be anytime soon.
NASCAR's move to limit testing to save money has forced teams to rely heavily on things like simulators to make up the difference. Roush would love to see NASCAR ease up on the restrictions, feeling nothing replaces track time when it comes to getting feedback on the car.
Regardless, Roush — who started working for Ford after graduating from college in 1964 — believes the end of the winless streak is near. For inspiration he needs only to look at how the auto industry and his adopted state have tried to bounce back from near collapse.
"Detroit is on the rebound," he said. "Ford certainly has turned the corner."