The Frontstretch: Whoo-Ah! Resurgent Roush Fenway Aiming To Keep Toyota In Check by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday March 11, 2008

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Jack Roush and Carl Edwards halted Toyota’s strong ’08 start with two straight victories at California and Las Vegas.

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 — 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 — 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.

Ouch.

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 — regardless of the circumstances — 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 — and close to falling behind a second lap — 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 — 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 — Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth — 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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Johnboy60
03/11/2008 07:55 AM
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Don’t know what you were watching Sunday, but Bush couldn’t hold Carl’s underwear until the car let go!. To say that Bush is the man is just as silly coming from you as it is coming from the fox toys on the race cast. And, yes toyota will, in the long run, cost nascrap and you writers a tremendous loss in fan base. It doesn’t matter anyway as soon as the “spec” engine is ready there won’t be a need for manufacturers to be involved in the sport. The days of “win on Sunday and sell on Monday” have already passed. And we already know the fate of a “spec.” series(IROC).

Sam
03/11/2008 08:56 AM
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Knowing that there is a Ford engine under the hood of Nascar’s spec car is the only reason I watch Nascar racing now. It’s the oldest, but it is still getting the job done. I can’t wait till Ford gets their purpose built racing engine like the others have. Maybe
then Jack can give them all something to worry about!

Bob Whitehead
03/11/2008 09:05 AM
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Excellent article!! All I can say is “GO, Carl, Go!!” Go get ‘em, Jack!

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
03/11/2008 09:07 AM
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Johnboy60 –

Hold onto your oil tank cover; I was watching the race where Kyle led 118 laps to Carl’s 30 at the time his engine came apart.

The speed of the 18 car has been undeniable this year, and compared to how it has run in previously seasons in recent memory, pretty remarkable.

I am going to go out on a limb and take it you are not on-board with Mike Joy glossing Kyle Busch, “Wild Thing”, and saying this several times during the weekend.

William
03/11/2008 10:02 AM
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Vito — liked the article, but in rebuttal to your comment about laps led…..

It doesn’t matter who was the fastest for most of the day, it matters who’s the fastest at the end. And, Edwards car was the fastest at the end of the race. period.

Johnboy60
03/11/2008 10:09 AM
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Yes Vito, you are right, but the fact is that he is the LEAST biased of the fox rats we have. I still say that in even equipment Bush is NO better that Carl, or Biffle or Gordon or Johnson…….so why is everyone trying to make him the next Saviour?

Michael
03/11/2008 11:20 AM
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Is there anyone more irritating in the booth than Joy and his phoney pious , middle ground , devils advocate routine ? Well actually , come to think of it , all three of them are a joke .
I don’t understand the venom toward Toyota or for that matter Busch . The Gibbs team has always been a front running organization . Why is anyone surprised at their early success with the new car ? Anyone that paid any attention last year knew that Kyle could obviously win races . And Hendrick traded a very good driver for a mediocre driver , because the mediocre driver could bring in far more sponsor and marketing money . Wise decision ? For the Hendrick bank account probably , but for wins and championships , i doubt it .

Dr Ray
03/11/2008 04:16 PM
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In the next three to four years, look for both Dodge and Ford to be absent from NASCAR, with only a few die hard Chevy teams still operating as such.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
03/11/2008 04:30 PM
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William –

What’s the old axiom…they always run their best right before they blow up??

Kevin in SoCal
03/11/2008 05:06 PM
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Did you guys forget that Carl was able to pass Kyle Busch because Carl pitted for 4 tires and Kyle did not? Yes there were only 7 more laps on Kyle’s tires but it seems to matter and affect the car’s handling.

ron
03/11/2008 09:42 PM
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I agree with Dr Ray’s comments about Dodge and Ford being absent in the coming years. Chevy and Toyota are fielding most of the teams in the truck series now. Token Dodge and Ford teams are all that are left there. As Toyota gets established in the Cup series the weaker Ford and Dodge teams are the first to fall out of the top 35 and permanently leave the sport. Eventually you are going to see 11 teams with 4 cars each.

LaLa
03/12/2008 07:09 PM
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Jack Rousch was right to be up front in his loathing of Toyota and the open checkbook. So far we have seen the results. Just count how many of each mfgs enter the race. Ford is the lowest, and probably the only “all american” commercial maker represented. Do you as a consumer want to pay even more for a Ford, or close a few more plants just so a race team can have more support?

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