Vito Pugliese · Tuesday March 11, 2008
A funny thing happened at the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta this weekend. No, a driver did not laud praise on Goodyear and no, the commentators did not bust out with some poor Atlanta analogy â€” as they insist on doing at Las Vegas and California, although the argument could be made that Busch took Atlanta like Sherman. No, something altogether different transpired; for the third straight race at a traditional mile-and-a-half type track, one team, Roush Fenway Racing, proved it has what it takes to keep pace with the Toyotas.
When the announcement was made that Toyota was going Cup racing in 2007, it might as well have said, "Tora, Tora, Tora!!!" to Jack Roush. Roush, who pilots a restored WWII vintage P-51 Mustang, was adamant that the revelation surrounding a foreign make, let alone a Japanese powerhouse who has a reputation of providing an open checkbook when it goes into a series, was going to be a detriment to the sport — not the boon that NASCAR was attempting to convince the public. Roush made the statement early that, "When Toyota goes racing, they do it as if they're going to war." It didn’t exactly win Roush the popular vote; in fact, many cringed at the comment, considering that driving around in a circle at Atlanta is a bit different than cruising through downtown Fallujah.
In motorsports vernacular, however, Roush probably wasn't that far off.
With Toyota landing Joe Gibbs Racing late in 2007, as well as welcoming the addition of one of the hottest drivers in auto racing in Kyle Busch, Toyota had shown signs of making a mockery of the 2008 season. Engines in Daytona were rumored to be cranking out over 30 horsepower more at the rear wheels, and promising preseason tests at California and Las Vegas — coupled with dominating performances in the Nationwide Series — led many to worry it would only be a matter of time before NASCAR became NAPCAR. The grim reality of a snoozer season loomed large, with the specter of an endless parade of Camrys dominating the action while a forced march of domestic makes followed in tow. After all, Jack Roush had warned early on that Toyota's potential to upset the balance in NASCAR could be "immediate and catastrophic.”
In the short term, though, Roush said he planned to hand Toyota its head on a platter — even as rocky times besieged Ford’s five-car powerhouse.
The 2007 season saw a number of defections from the Roush camp that many thought would derail its 2003 and 2004 title-winning ways. The same organization that accounted for half of the Chase contenders in 2005 had but two entrants last season, as changes did take awhile to reach their full effect. Mark Martin had vacated the flagship No. 6 car. Crew chief Pat Tryson was released from Greg Biffle’s team early in the season after arguing that the company needed a dedicated Car of Tomorrow test team â€” a team that Roush did not institute until Tryson left to join Penske Racing. By the end of the ’07 Chase, the nearest Roush Fenway car in the standings to champion Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick team was Matt Kenseth, a distant 425 points back after just 10 races. The old system wouldn’t even be enough to save him; had they used the points system in place when Kenseth won the title in ’03, he would have been 737 points in arrears. Carl Edwards, 881 points down.
But a momentum shift at Roush Fenway began towards the end of last season. Edwards' No. 99 team, headed by Bob Osborne, began to get a hold of the Car of Tomorrow, posting convincing wins at Bristol in August and Dover in September. Biffle got back on track in the old car by winning at Kansas, and was close behind Edwards at Dover in a car he claimed was set up exclusively at the shop from information gained on RFR’s shaker rig.
The Car of Tomorrow was, and is, the cutting edge of today. Making it go fast requires a dedicated R&D team to squeeze every last ounce of tolerance, grip, horsepower, drag, and downforce out of it, engineering focus and expertise beyond what even the previous generation of NASCAR race car demanded. Knowing the work needed, Roush sunk in the money it took to catch up; what else would you expect from a guy who built his fortunes doing R&D work for the Big Three Automakers outside of Detroit?
Witness the resurgence of the No. 99 team to date. Edwards had a promising run at Daytona slip away in the late going, then bounced back to handily win the second race at California. The team won again in Las Vegas â€” regardless of the circumstances â€” and seemed to be one of the few cars that could keep pace with Kyle Busch around the 1.54-mile quad-oval in Hampton, Georgia, before the engine expired while leading. Biffle, though, was making a move to challenge for the win thereafter, but was forced to use up his tires dicing with Busch's teammate, Tony Stewart, for second place.
Even Kenseth, who at one point during the event was a lap down â€” and close to falling behind a second lap â€” was able to make adjustments to his Fusion to get it back into contention. Looking like the "Killer Bees" of old, the Chip Bolen-led crew orchestrated an eighth-place run, no small feat when you consider the lack of caution flags and number of cars Busch was able to lap early in the going.
One new asset that all of the Roush teams have at their disposal is Robbie Reiser. Kenseth's one-time rival in Wisconsin had been his right hand man since both came down South in 1997 to give NASCAR a try. The crew chief on the 2003 Winston Cup Championship-winning DeWalt Taurus, Reiser's No. 17 bunch was immune to the trials and tribulations that routinely arose elsewhere within the Roush camp. It was seemingly an island of tranquility in a stormy sea of chaos, as the No. 17 car was regularly the standard-bearer for consistent finishes. They also earned the reputation as the most reliable bunch on pit road, even as their teammates struggled to get a grasp on handling, aerodynamics, horsepower, or personnel.
This season, Reiser has stepped back from his familiar place atop the war wagon of the No. 17 car, serving as general manager for the organization instead. Spreading that knowledge has certainly been a benefit to all — even if Reiser may be having some trouble adjusting to his new role.
But while the good times appear to be rolling for the Roush Fenway bunch, all is not well within the ranks. Jamie McMurray's car continues to run as it has since he arrived in 2006 â€” as if it is seemingly dragging a boat anchor. When it isn't wrecking, it's slow, and when it's slow it won't blow up to spare the driver and team the misery of another Sunday afternoon wrestling an ill-handling slug.
David Ragan's 10th-place effort at Las Vegas last weekend was his best finish this year, but a self-imposed wreck at Daytona and a mediocre run at Atlanta shows him 21st in points; it’s a position in which Jimmy Fennig and the No. 6 car are not historically accustomed to sitting.
With that being said, the heavy hitters of the Roush Fenway camp â€” Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth â€” are clearly showing the same form they held a few short seasons ago when the three were the scourge of the downforce tracks.
The series heads to Bristol this weekend, whose short, tight racing typically acts as an equalizer for brand dominance. However, Edwards and Kenseth have combined to win three of the last five races at the half-mile bullring.
Regardless of how militant Toyota may appear to competitors, Roush Fenway has fired a few salvos of their own thus far this season in its war against the Tokyo Titans. This weekend, it looks to continue the offensive in Thunder Valley and throughout the 2008 NASCAR season in all three divisions.
Don’t expect anything less.
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