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A pony shall lead them.

Ford Motor Co. may be transitioning to an SUV and pickup brand, but the iconic Mustang muscle car is set to be the performance face of the company from its new electric crossover in 2020 to a Mustang-dominated, global racing lineup starting this year.

The Mustang will debut this weekend at Daytona 500 qualifying as Ford's NASCAR model, replacing the Ford Fusion sedan. With a Mustang Funny Car dragster also bowing this weekend at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals outside Los Angeles, the pony car will carry the Blue Oval's flag into battle from the Australian Super Cup Series to GT racing in Europe. 

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"The Mustang started to go global for its vehicle sales in 2016. We wanted to mirror that with our race team," says global chief of Ford Performance Motorsport Mark Rushbrook. "As Mustang street cars have true global reach and availability, then we are switching cars to a Mustang in all of our global race series where appropriate."

The Dearborn automaker is going through wrenching global changes from abandoning its car lineup to investing in an autonomous-development-focused Detroit train station to introducing 40 electric vehicles by 2022.

But the Mustang's signature, shark-like face and vertical-bar taillights will lend familiarity. The Mustang is now on sale in 146 countries and is the best-selling sports coupe in the world.

The Fusion sedan will no longer be pounding around the high bankings of Daytona International Speedway this weekend. Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ Joey Logano and his Bloomfield Hills-based Penske racing team will lead 14 Mustangs into qualifying. The 500-mile race will be held Sunday, Feb. 17, before a TV audience of over 9 million viewers.

Rushbrook's Ford Performance team took advantage of NASCAR's new, 2018 rules which allowed manufacturers to enter a coupe as well as the traditional sedan nameplate. Ford's pony will join Chevrolet's Camaro coupe — which debuted last year — and Toyota's Camry sedan in this year's Cup series.

"We believe we’ve designed the Mustang to be faster than the Fusion," says Rushbrook, though he acknowledges you never know until race day. "Based on our computational fluid dynamics tools, scale wind-tunnel testing, and full-scale wind-tunnel testing — and the few on-track tests we've had — we’ve made a good move. But until the real race, we never know for sure, so there’s always some level of nervousness."

Building Rushbrook's confidence are new NASCAR aerodynamic rules, meaning every team had to start from scratch. Under the hood, the NASCARs still will be powered by familiar ol', push-rod V-8s (though restricted to 550 horsepower for big ovals and 750 horses for small tracks and road courses).

NASCAR hopes the Mustang-Camaro rivalry will jump-start sagging ratings. And Ford hopes its pony car's racing presence will help sell an all-electric crossover coming in 2020 — complete with fast-back Mustang design DNA.

The e-crossover's sound will be decidedly un-V-8-like, but Ford is determined to translate the Mustang's personality into a speedy, Tesla-like EV.

"We're going to change a lot of people's minds," Ford global markets boss Jim Farley has told investors, promising a fast green ute that appeals to more than tree-huggers.

At the top of the go-fast pyramid will be Ford's 2019 Mustang Funny Car. 

NHRA Funny Cars are essentially Top Fuel slingshot dragsters with car bodies. Compared to the Mustang Cobra Jet dragster (also set to debut at the Winternationals) and its production-based engine, the Mustang Funny Car is a unique species. Over a mere 1,000 feet, the earth-shaking, V-8-powered rocket will reach 330 mph in less than the four seconds. It generates over 10,000-plus horsepower — more than the first five rows of the Daytona 500 field combined — from eye-watering nitro methane fuel.

"NHRA is is so far removed from anything that it’s difficult to use our analytical engine tools," laughs Rushbrook, who says Ford Racing contributes its drive-train technology to every other race series it competes in. "They do their own engine works. We help them with aero only."

The first Mustang redesign for Funny Car in almost a decade, the Mustang will line up against entries from Dodge (the Charger Hellcat introduced last year) and Chevy (Camaro run by NHRA legend John Force).

"It’s great," smiles Rushbrook at the prospect of Detroit's Big Three going to war on the drag strip. "Competing against other OEMs is part of the reason we want to be in motor sports."

In addition to NASCAR, Mustang and Penske also will pair up on the other side of the globe for the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.

Kiwi hot foot Scott McLaughlin will be defending his championship for Penske in the newly-badged Mustang Supercar. The 'Stang replaces the outgoing Falcon nameplate though the underlying chassis and 650-horse, V-8 power-plant remain the same.

For the most direct transfer of race-to-street engineering, Ford is sending its production-based GT4 Mustang overseas this year. Similar to the car that has dominated IMSA's Sportscar Challenge series, the pony will thrill fans in Europe as well as Down Under.

"The GT4 has a lot of direct relevance to our street program — it uses the same car body and minor modifications to suspension," says Rushbrook. "Like global street-car sales, it gets global homologation so we can do one car, one design and it can be sold to race around the world."

Behind the Mustang juggernaut will be other Ford models, of course. The gorgeous Ford GT in IMSA GTLM racing and the the Ford Fiesta in off-road rallying.

But a new era of Mustang performance is leading a new era for Ford.

"It’s my passion and I absolutely love what we’re doing," says Rushbrook. Which is a good thing — because he'll be wiping the tears from his nitro-stung eyes in California Friday night to take the red eye to Daytona for Saturday qualifying.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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