Despite a last-lap charge by Kurt Busch to finish second, the final results would seem to show that the 2005 version of the Daytona 500 was not kind to those who drive a Ford. In fact, it’s fair to say that the last five Daytona 500s have been Chevrolet and Dodge parades. Even with Dale Jarrett on the pole for this year’s race, a Ford failed to lead ONE lap at Daytona. In fact, just two drivers have led laps in a Ford in the last three Daytona 500s—- Matt Kenseth and Todd Bodine. Needless to say, when one talks about the restrictor plate races of Daytona and Talladega, the once feared programs led by Roush and Yates in the late 1990s need to do some work; the 2.5 mile superspeedways currently have Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Inc. crowned as their kings.
But, Daytona and Talladega represent a type of Fantasyland in NASCAR, similar to the roller coaster that runs during all those FOX commercials. The restrictor plates at these tracks keep the cars from being capable of pulling away from each other, creating superdrafts of cars running side-by-side, and different rules and regulations make the four races at those tracks more of a crapshoot than anything else. It’s the race engineers, engine tuners, and wind tunnel owners who get to revel in the glory of preparing a car for Daytona and Talladega; the drivers still have to put themselves in position to win, but they have little to do with the car’s basic setup.
However, Sunday was all about settling back into NASCAR’s real world. 32 unrestricted races await, all with a new spoiler and tire package that, at first glance, is giving many driver/crew chief combinations nothing but complete fits. Kasey Kahne complained about the car’s grip after breaking loose and crashing by himself at California. Todd Parrott, Elliott Sadler’s crew chief, said the team had to throw away all their notes from the fall race at the speedway (which Elliott won) because the handling under the new rules was so radically different. It’s a type of handling package that makes the cars significantly looser and harder to drive, an attribute that one would think plays into the hands of the craftier veterans on the circuit who’d experienced this feeling before.
But it doesn’t seem like individual drivers can do it all on their own anymore, in this age of multi-car teams with multi-million dollar sponsorships and extensive testing and research information. So, it wasn’t the veterans, it wasn’t the rookies, but multi-car team performance on Sunday that gave us an indication of which drivers will have it all together for this year’s Chase to the Championship. And there’s one group in particular that came to the forefront: Jack Roush, not only the winning owner of the Auto Club 500 but the car owner of four cars in the top seven spots on Sunday.
Now, Roush certainly has a hall-of-fame resume already to his credit. Owner of the last two Nextel Cup championships (Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch). Winner of over 50 NASCAR Nextel Cup races. And after 2004, a year in which saw not only Kurt Busch win the title but three Roush drivers finish in the top ten in points, the most of any multi-car team. Roush also saw four of his five full-time teams take the checkered flag first, the first time in NASCAR’s modern era that’s happened.
Looking forward to 2005, it would be easy to assume the organization had reached their peak. And history would be on your side. Only twice has a car owner won three straight titles in NASCAR’s modern era: Junior Johnson (1976-78) and Rick Hendrick (1995-97). With the obligations off-the-track for the Nextel Cup champion, it certainly makes it harder for Kurt Busch to repeat at the top, and with late-season surges by Hendrick drivers Gordon and Johnson, combined with a late-season sag by championship challengers Martin and Kenseth, one would think Roush’s days at the top could be numbered.
Two races into the season, that theory’s been thrown out the window. In fact, the lineup Roush has right now may be the best all-around collection of drivers we’ve ever seen for a multi-car team of this size. You have the Nextel Cup champion in Busch, who shows no signs of slowing down after a stellar Chase for the Championship in 2004. You’ve got Martin, who in his final full season is making an all-out last gasp for the title, all while loosening up and having fun like never before. In just the first two weekends of racing, he’s collected a Busch and an IROC win, and keep in mind he has the whole Roush arsenal at his disposal, as his longtime friend is more than willing to give Mark whatever he needs to get his title. Then, you’ve got Kenseth, who has struggled to start off 2005 but has finished in the Top 10 in points every year since 2002; no doubt he’ll be there by the end of race 26.
Fourth in line, you’ve got Greg Biffle, this weekend’s winner and (Daytona excluded) the hottest driver on the circuit, winning two out of the last three events (dating back to 2004) and gelling with his team like never before. Add in a crew chief that’s already won a championship with the Intimidator in 1980 (Doug Richert) and you’ve got a darkhorse championship contender. And as if the lineup could have improved from the beginning of 2004, you’ve now got Carl Edwards, replacing Jeff Burton in the 99 car, who had the talent but no longer had the chemistry with Roush. All the young rookie’s done is finish in the top ten in six of his 12 starts in the series, threatening to win two races along the way, Atlanta in the fall and California this Sunday.
Without sounding any more like a Roush press release, the message here is clear; this may be the only multi-car team out there right now without a weak link. And while it would be nice to add a Daytona 500 to their resume (no Roush driver has won), all these drivers aren’t worried about the glory of one week; they’re in it for the long haul, concerned about sitting up front at the Waldorf Astoria come December. And with four drivers already in the top five in points, and Vegas coming up, a track where Roush drivers have won five of the first seven events, it’s safe to say they’re well on their way to achieving that goal.
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