Nuts for Nationwide · Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday March 24, 2011
It’s hard not to think of Roush Fenway Racing whenever NASCAR’s traveling circus heads west to Fontana and the Auto Club Speedway. With 15 wins across NASCAR’s three national touring series, and a list of winners including 2002 Nationwide Series champion Greg Biffle, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin among those that have contributed to the trophy haul, out west has felt right at home for the blue oval brigade’s flagship.
And while it’s been over four years since the outfit’s Nationwide Series program has visited victory lane at the two-mile oval, Roush has been far from an afterthought in the running order; they’ve placed at least one car in the top 5 in every series race run at the facility since 2008 and in the top 10 since the spring race of 2003 (that race was won by Matt Kenseth driving what was then John Reiser’s Nationwide Ford, so the tally arguably goes back even further).
There’s one catch to that impressive run though…every single one of those wins, top 5, even top 10 finishes during that span have been chalked up by Roush Cup drivers. To find an actual Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide regular scoring a top 10 finish at Fontana, one has to go all the way back to Greg Biffle in 2002…the last season Roush’s Nationwide program won the series championship without a ringer behind the wheel. No Roush series regular has ever won a race at Fontana, or even scored a top 5 finish for that matter since the track hosted its first race in 1997.
So while Carl Edwards, coming into Saturday’s 300-miler riding a streak of six consecutive top 5 finishes at the facility, may be a sure thing, that tag is far from applying to teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., arguably the most potent challenge for the Nationwide title the Roush camp has fielded without Edwards in the seat since that 2002 season.
Because while Bayne turned the racing world upside down in Daytona Beach, his pursuit of the Nationwide Series title in 2011 has been anything but steady, with a pair of top 10 results at Daytona and Las Vegas countered with an ugly wreck at Phoenix courtesy of a blown tire and a disappointing struggle with a damaged car at Bristol. Boding well for him this weekend is that he’s scored top 10 finishes in the season’s first two races on tracks longer than one mile, as well as a solid history at Fontana (he finished 11th in both races at the track a season ago and has completed every career lap he’s logged on the surface). But inconsistency, whether of the driver’s own making or that of his competitors, is the last thing any team wants on their mind heading to Fontana, perhaps the most rhythm sensitive race track any of NASCAR’s national touring series visit.
As for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., inconsistency has not been the word to describe his sophomore season on the Nationwide tour, a far cry from the driver who last season wrecked nearly the entire Roush stable of cars and even missed the field at Nashville. 2011 has been the polar opposite of that ugly 2010 campaign, with the Mississippi-native tied for the series’ lead in top 10s and second in points, only two markers behind leader Jason Leffler and the only driver in the top four in points that does not drive for Turner Motorsports.
That said, for as ugly as 2010 was for Stenhouse, the Auto Club Speedway was even more unkind than most. Stenhouse was involved in a wreck late in the spring race at the track after overcorrecting trying to avoid another incident on track, while in the fall he struggled to finish in the top 30, three laps down, despite notching a top 20 qualifying effort.
Stenhouse has proven adept at looking absolutely nothing like his rookie self thus far through the 2011 season. Roush Fenway Racing will be banking on that heading into this weekend as much as they have at any other track this season. Because Turner Motorsports, the home of current points leader Jason Leffler, can also boast having placed at least one car in the top 10 in every Nationwide Series race at the track since 2008 (under the Braun Racing banner).
Then again, Jason Leffler accounted for exactly zero of those results. For the Turner camp, like Roush, put that streak together with nothing but Cup regulars behind the wheel (Reed Sorenson was also driving for Red Bull Racing when he finished 10th in the fall NNS race at Fontana last season). Hello consistency.
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