The Frontstretch: Is Roush Fenway's Slow Start A Case of Short Track-itis ... Or A Sign Of Something Else? by Danny Peters -- Tuesday March 31, 2009

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Is Roush Fenway's Slow Start A Case of Short Track-itis ... Or A Sign Of Something Else?

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday March 31, 2009


In the euphoria surrounding his rain-shortened victory in the Daytona 500, the self-styled perfectionist Jack Roush must have permitted himself a wry smile. Winning the biggest race of all for the very first time — after 113 previous Sprint Cup victories in 21 years of ownership — must have felt like a harbinger of what was to come in 2009. No doubt, Roush thought it was an important first step en route to what he expects will be a third Sprint Cup crown.

Sadly, for the “Cat in the Hat,” it hasn’t proved to lean in that direction so far as after six rounds of action, all five of his drivers have, to some extent, underachieved. In fact during the last two weeks, at the two shortest tracks on the circuit, it’s been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. A 10th place finish for Jamie McMurray at the little old paperclip last Sunday is the highest finish of any Roush Fenway driver during that span, and the only thing worth writing home about for an organization which failed to run better than 15th at Bristol the week before.

Perhaps, though, this is simply a case of short track-itis. It’s easy, let’s not forget, to get swept up in other peoples’ messes, to see a good run turn into a horrible finish through plain misfortune or (other) driver error at the bullring that is Thunder Valley or at Martinsville, the shortest and slowest track the circuit. Mistakes are magnified, and any small snafu can become a steaming, fender-crunching mess in an instant. But for Roush, their drivers are in the midst of one too many mistakes; at the moment, just two of the five are listed in the top 12 in points (Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, hanging on for dear life in 12th). Among those well outside it include McMurray, David Ragan, and Greg Biffle, with Roush affiliate Yates Racing struggling with both Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard.

Since the Chase format artificially shortens the season into regular and postseason portions, the emphasis placed on making that final field of 12 after the cutoff race in Richmond could not be higher — especially with this economy and sponsors leery of renewing contracts. That’s not good news for Roush, though, as the historical evidence from the five previous iterations of the Chase suggests that the standings after six races tend to mirror very closely the final makeup of the field of 12 Chase drivers. With that in mind, there can be no doubt that the five wheelmen of Roush Fenway Racing need to bounce back quickly at the wide open vistas of Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.

I’ll start with Matt Kenseth. Now, I’m sure fans of the driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford Fusion will be (virtually) screaming at me over the word “slump,” especially since he went on an early season tear to win the first two races. But since then, it’s been a completely different story for the Wisconsinite. After such a stellar start to the season, Kenseth finished dead last at Vegas (his engine expired after just six laps), 12th in Atlanta (the last car on the lead lap), 33rd at Bristol (where he barely rated a mention all night long) and 23rd at Martinsville (after going a lap down early thanks to a tire miscue on pit road). The 2003 Cup champ still sits in the all-important top 12, but remains only seven points ahead of wily veteran Jeff Burton in 13th. The good news for Kenseth, though, is that he has run well at the “cookie-cutter” tracks of 1.5 to 2 miles in length — tracks that make up half of this year’s ten race playoff. As he himself pointed out after Fontana: “Really, this is the start of the type of racing that makes up the bulk of the schedule, and whether you run good or bad at these tracks has more of a determining factor on making the Chase or running for a championship.”

After a third place finish overall in 2008, much was expected of Greg Biffle in 2009. But it’s fair to say the Biff has not matched those preseason expectations at this point. The No. 16 looked like Bambi on ice for much of Speedweeks, and he was probably relatively happy to escape with a 20th place finish at Daytona. Two good weeks followed after that (4th – Fontana; 7th – Vegas), but it’s been all downhill since leaving Sin City for him. A crash in Atlanta relegated Biffle to 34th while an engine expiring saw him finish 39th at Bristol where his hauler, replete with a wrecked vehicle, left the track well before the race had completed. He then finished 23rd at Martinsville despite having started 10th thanks to the rainout in qualifying, but as Biff noted after the race: “This track is just not my track. We’ve run as good as we can here… but it’s tough for us. We could never get the thing to turn and get good grip off. Every once in awhile, we’d run good, but we’re just missing that little bit of something. We’ll keep working on it, and we’ll get it one of these days.” Mired in 23rd in the standings, a full 99 points out of 12th place, Biffle can’t afford to have too many more bad days. The hole he’s dug is not insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll need to scratch and claw his way back into the Chase field by leapfrogging a handful of strong contenders now ahead of him.

It’s been nothing but bad luck for the entire Roush Fenway camp since Matt Kenseth’s hot start to the 2009 season.

Continuing this mediocrity tour, Jamie McMurray sits one place and four points ahead of The Biff in 22nd place overall. With Donnie Wingo back atop the pit box this year and the threat of contraction at the end of the season (Roush will have to scale back, per NASCAR, from five to four teams), the incentive was more than there for the Joplin, MO native to get up on the wheel from the drop of the first green flag at Daytona. And although he hasn’t had a disastrous start to 2009, it’s not been the all guns blazing effort fans of the driver might have hoped for. 37th in the Daytona 500, a hapless victim in the Earnhardt-Vickers “battle of the scruffy bearded egos,” was followed by a 16th place run at Fontana, an encouraging 9th place at Las Vegas, and a 15th place effort in Atlanta. But the good “mo” evaporated at Bristol, where McMurray mirrored his Daytona finish with a 37th place run — dropping him all the way down to 28th in the standings.

So, in the context of his season, 10th at Martinsville was a solid effort tempered, a little, by his post-race comments: “We started so far in the back, and typically I run well here; but I always qualify well, and it makes it so much easier when you’re up front [he started 28th]. Our car had a tremendous amount of speed in it, but I just could not pass. I could catch guys pretty easy and I just couldn’t pass them, so we struggled just to get track position.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I saw plenty of passing all day at Martinsville. And if McMurray is complaining about passing at short tracks… I can’t wait to see his comments next weekend (or at other upcoming cookie cutters). The simple fact is a weak beginning doesn’t bode well for McMurray, it really doesn’t.

Another driver who’s struggled is David Ragan. Much was expected of the Unadilla, GA native, the youngest man in the RFR stable at 23 entering 2009. After a 13th place overall finish last year, new sponsor colors courtesy of UPS, and a fantastic new TV ad, many pundits expected Ragan to kick it on this year and make the Chase for the first time — perhaps even picking up a maiden win in the process. A 6th place effort at Daytona was a solid start for him; but since then, a 17th in California and 19th in Atlanta were sandwiched by a 42nd place finish in Vegas where, like Kenseth, the team’s engine expired. Killing any leftover momentum from last year, the last two weeks have not been much prettier for Ragan with two consecutive 27th place finishes. It doesn’t take a math genius to work out that more of the same is going to put the kibosh on his Chase chances before we even get to the All-Star race.

Last but not least is Cousin Carl, who finished 26th Sunday at a track he traditionally does not run well at. A pit road miscue, followed by a cut left rear tire courtesy of David Reutimann, translated into a bad points day for the man with the toothiest smile in professional sports. Edwards started last season like the proverbial “bat out of hell,” winning two of the first three races. 2009 hasn’t been quite so kind, though; an 18th at Daytona, 7th at Fontana, and 17th at Vegas were followed by his best run to date in Atlanta, where he finished third. A 15th place effort at Bristol (a track he won at last August) was the preface to Sunday’s ho-hum finish for Edwards. As a result, last year’s championship runner-up sits 8th in the overall standings, 51 points ahead of 13th. Maybe marriage isn’t quite the boost to the results he’d been told it was…

So, what’s wrong here then? Is the poor early season in part due to lack of testing at Roush? Kenseth disagrees. “It depends on the week for me,” he says of his opinion towards that rule. “I think though, seriously, overall, I think it’s a great idea. I think with the amount of practice we have here with this car that’s been the same rules for two years — a full year and a half of racing going on the third season without moving splitter heights, or changing any of the aerodynamic balances, none of that stuff we mess with anymore, so I don’t think it’s a big deal. We’ve all been working with the car and everybody has a basic idea of where to start… and I think the practice at the track is really adequate. It’s not like the old car where you could put two totally different bodies on the cars and go to the track and test and say, ‘Oh yeah, this one drives way better than that one.’ I mean, those days are kind of gone, unless they ever open the rulebook back up again. All of the cars are pretty close to the same, so you just bring a car to the track and start working on it.”

So, a season that started out with great expectations hasn’t exactly turned out as scripted so far for Jack Roush and his Roush racers. The rapture of the first two week’s worth of wins from Matt Kenseth has well and truly been consigned to the bucket marked “past history.” Yes, Edwards and Kenseth (just barely) sit in the top 12 in points, but the Biff, McMurray, and Ragan are very much on the outside looking in. And none of the three, not even Ragan, who is 145 points out of 12th place, are done yet in terms of the Chase — but many more bad weekends like we’ve seen in the past couple weeks and their 2009 campaigns will be over no sooner than they had begun.

Contact Danny Peters

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03/31/2009 07:41 AM

This looks good on “The Jerk In The Hat”! Roush has made a total joke out of the Cup series with his five teams. Kenseth’s undeserved Championship was another Roush joke! A joke that lead to another joke called “The Chase”, which has cost a true Champion his fifth, and possibly his sixth Championship. Although th last three years did produce a most deserving Champion! None of Roush’s drivers are not only championship calibre drivers, but they aren’t even deserving of being in NASCAR at all, let alone racing at the Cup level! I hope all five of those losers drop out of the top-35 by Talladega, and after that, I hope they all miss every race after that! And then, I hope Roush gets out of NASCAR and leaves ownership to true deserving people like Rick Hendrick, the greatest car owner ever! Look’s good on Roush, the loser!

03/31/2009 08:57 AM

Hey Mike, would I be correct in assuming that you don’t particularly care for

03/31/2009 10:10 AM

The Rat in the Hat, is not on my Xmas card list either, but to call Matt’s Championship undeserved. Shows colossal ignorance. Until this bogus, made for TV. So-called Chase is replaced. Matt is the last of the real Champions. Then a team needed to be on their game for an entire season. Now the first 26 races are just a qualifier. Luck played a very large part in Kurt Busch’s Championship, while Matt’s was hard earned. If you’re referring to the fact that he only won one race. If Jr. were able to win a championship, while winning one race (still possible, by the way) people would be falling all over him. About how he’s validated his greatness. So get over it!

Joe W.
03/31/2009 10:37 AM

Mike, you are not a very informed Nascar observer. Matt Kenseth earned his championship over a whole season. You say none of the Roush drivers deserve to be in Nascar. That is just stupid!!! Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle have all won CHAMPIONSHIPS in Nascar divisions without the chase. I think Jeff Gordon should have six championships too, but to say the Roush drivers are not deserving is true ignorance of the sport.

G roy
03/31/2009 11:11 AM

Roush and Martin were fined out of a Cup Title when NASCAR took away points for a spacer that not only had been used several times it met the height limitations for the carb spacer….several other cars used the two piece spacer, at least until then.

03/31/2009 12:29 PM

I don’t believe Jack Roush needs me to defend him, but I would like to point out a few facts.
Roush runs 5 cars in the Cup series, at least 3 cars in the Nationwide series (sometimes more) and 2 or 3 in the Truck series.
That means a total of at least 20 cars prepared (includes backup cars)and brought to a race track on weekends when all 3 series race. A lot of the times they are racing at different tracks. Think about the amout of jobs that alone creates.
Hendrick runs 4 cars in Cup, 0 in Nationwide and 0 in the Truck series. That means 8 cars brought to the track each weekend. Respectable, but pales in comparisom.
When Hendrick drivers and crew chiefs are asked who their biggest competion is, they usually will say the 99 or the 16 or the 17. Ask Roush drivers the same question and they most likely will say the 48 or the 24. Both teams will include the 18 on occasion.
Point I want to make is, that without both teams being in comptetion, winning would not be nearly as much fun for all of us. When my guys win, I get to rub your nose in it and vice versa for you.

03/31/2009 12:56 PM

I’ve been doing some top secret investigating and came to the conclusion that Jack Roush is Digger.
Just thought you all should know!

IMO, Ragan took the worst dump (so far) and looks to be Nationwide-bait. Too bad too, cuz he’s got some talent. The other four from that camp will be fine, they’ll just get a big RFR stimulus bailout thrown at them.

Kevin in SoCal
03/31/2009 01:42 PM

Hendrick runs two teams in Nationwide. The 5 car was always his, and the 88 is a joint effort between Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr now that Jr is driving for Hendrick.

Also, this is probably a newbie question, but how did Biffle’s car and hauler leave Bristol before the race was over? I thought the infield was only accessible by crossing over the racetrack, there is no tunnel underneath. Am I wrong?

03/31/2009 03:03 PM

Biffle’s Car hauler did no more leave the infield before the race was over than I flew outta my seat there and landed on the moon.

Where he got that I’ll never know. I was there and sat in the stands until the deputies ran me out and watched all the car haulers leave.

It would have required a red flag and we all know that didn’t happen.

Brain France Sucks
03/31/2009 07:10 PM

Hey Mike, did Roush steal you old lady or something? Or are you just a Hendrick groupie? Not very informed there dude. I know its what ifs, but if Edwards didn’t get bumped by Root-a-man, he would’ve run Top 5 easy. That car was on rails; sadly, his crew was on something else. The 99’s pit crew effort has been sub-par so far, but the on track performance has been good. Carl was up front at Daytona when Jr had his brain-fade, and ran well everywhere else except for Bristol. Sometimes the results don’t ad up though. Still plenty of races left to get back to the front.

Roger Merkley
03/31/2009 07:55 PM

Does Mike need to be reminded that a RFR car (the # 99) did win the most races in 2008, and finished 2nd in the points. The Hendrick camp isnt’t exactly running away with things this year so far. The RFR boys will regroup and be a force to reckon with along with JGR and RCR.

John Calla
03/31/2009 09:29 PM

Seems like Ford is struggling overall. I think they’re down to like 7 cars now. We’ll see if they do any better with that new engine later in the year but I’m not sure what to expect.

04/01/2009 12:38 AM

Dawg and Joe have it right. Silly Jack has done a lot of things to bring negative attention to the sport (tire-gate, sway-bar-gate, his incessent bitching about toyota, etc.), but Kenseth won that champ fair and square with downright frightening consistency. Ticked me off big time back then when I was a Jr fan (back when he could drive because he respected pops and had a few wild racing hairs up his arse – too whipped and mellow and distracted now). Anyway, Matt is a very legit champion, and in my opinion Kenseth, Stewart, Gordon, and Labonte are the only legit full time drivers who can call themselves champs. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson could have won a championship by now IMO, I just can’t call this Chase format champion a real champion. Not Johnson’s fault. France’s fault. Hope somebody cleans up the mess of a leadership the sport has and we can get back to some real racing, real drivers, real personalities, real rivalries … sigh, the good old days.

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