Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 9, 2009
Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.”
That came to mind Sunday night following the Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. As the race concluded, with the most up-to-date point standings being posted as driver interviews followed, the thought of Carl Edwards and his broken foot embodying the whole of Roush Fenway Racing began to manifest itself. Now, I have no idea what caused this comparison to come to mind. Lack of sleep? Delirium? Maybe it was just really late and I didn’t need that second Beef ‘N’ Cheddar from Arby’s after all…
The comparison, though, is an accurate one, and with only one race remaining before the points are reset for the top 12 and the Chase for the Championship gets underway, the trio of Roush drivers who are currently fighting for a spot are hobbling into the playoffs like Willis Reed coming onto the floor for the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Whether or not Edwards, Greg Biffle, or Matt Kenseth will inspire themselves remains to be seen, but Edwards, with his bum wheel, is the standard bearer for an organization that just can’t seem to find a way to get itself into contention for more than a handful of top 10 finishes at this point in the season.
For me, it is nothing less than shocking that things have gotten to this point for the only viable Ford operation in NASCAR. The one company who resisted the Corleone bailout from Congress earlier this year should have been in decent shape; instead, they’re collectively dragging itself into the championship like nemesis Eric Gordon tied to a fourth grader in the three-legged race in Billy Madison.
A cursory examination of the current standings reveals that none of their three top drivers are safe, either – particularly Edwards, who sits (because he cannot stand) fifth in points, only 105 ahead of the surging Brian Vickers. Vickers has been on an absolute tear the last three months with a win, four poles, and seven top-10 finishes. To put things into perspective as to how perilously close the No. 99 team is to dropping out of contention, should Vickers earn a top 5 finish and Edwards runs as he did Sunday night (without leading a lap while the rest of the top 12 crew largely avoids trouble) he’s done.
The situation is that much more dire for his teammates Kenseth and Biffle.
Kenseth, who is only 20 points ahead of Vickers in 13th, has been found muddling about most of the season following back-to-back wins to start it. Since then, the results have been dismal at best, though he has appeared to rebound slightly in recent weeks, running at least towards the back of the top 10 – and if not finishing there, at least mighty close to it.
“Close,” however, is not going to be good enough this year, and Kenseth has said as much himself. In the midst of his familiar mile-a-minute post-race replies Sunday night, he emphasized the need for the No. 17 team to focus on getting their cars better, faster, and consistent. These are traits that have been sorely lacking this year, and arguably ever since Robbie Reiser stepped down from the Killer Bees’ war wagon two seasons ago. While new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer helped to bring early success, the drop to the bubble has been long in coming, with their last top 5 coming at Dover nearly four months ago.
That is not to say that the crew chief is the issue, as none of the Roush cars have displayed much in the way of consistent speed this year. Whatever secret the Roush Fenway bunch learned during the second half of last year has either slipped away or become common knowledge for virtually every other team in the field.
Biffle has been a similar story, as he is 68 points ahead of Vickers and a 10-week No-Man’s Land to end the season. But while failing to contend for a win since running out of gas on the last lap at Michigan in June, Biffle has at least been a top-5 or top-10 car for most of the last six weeks. One thing playing in his favor is that he has led laps the previous two races, and those 10 bonus points could very well be the difference between sticking around for the Sprint Cup presentation celebration Saturday night or trying to beat traffic out of Henrico County. (This is normally where I’d try to make a crack about his braces, but after a less than successful visit to the dentist today, I am going to just keep those to myself.)
Finally, Edwards and his broken foot are one more mediocre run away from watching what was supposed to be another shot at the championship after last year’s runner-up effort go up in Aflac-blue engine smoke. A 37th-place finish in Atlanta put him in the same position as every other driver back to Kyle Busch in 14th – with running for the win the only way to guarantee a shot at making the cut at Richmond this weekend. Being conservative and playing it safe will likely only get you passed, lapped, wrecked, and sitting on the sidelines watching for the next 10 races — thinking of what might have been.
Couple that prospect with the new double-file restart procedure, the chance of a flat tire that puts a driver more than a lap down, being involved in a short-track fender bender that requires some work, and any driver can pretty much forget about getting your lap back if they lose it — which could be a problem for this trio as they encounter the team’s major weakness this season: short tracks.
Taking a look through the finishing results this past Spring, RIR is not a welcome sight for these three RFR drivers. In May, it was Kenseth leading the charge with a 13th-place finish, Biffle in 16th, and Edwards a 26th-place effort. Considering that Busch won at Richmond just a few months ago and sits 37 points behind Kenseth and 85 back from Biffle — when the average finishes of Edwards, Kenseth, and Biffle at RIR are 19.0, 16.7, and 15.8, respectively — all of the pieces are falling into place for a Big Lebowski-the-plane-has-crashed-into-the-mountain moment for the Blue Oval brigade Saturday night.
“A rolling stone gathers momentum” is not a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde and is of no great consequence, but it is a well-known and appropriate saying when detailing someone’s success. It seems to apply to NASCAR rather well, as it reinforces the importance of consistency and the increasingly solid performances that follow – such as with drivers like Vickers, Kasey Kahne, or Juan Pablo Montoya.
The inverse, however, can easily hold to be true. Often, that same stone is gaining speed because it was being pushed uphill and is now tumbling down, crushing whatever happens to be in its path. Roush Fenway Racing is trying to hold it back, but don’t be surprised if that same rock runs over the already broken foot of Edwards, or perhaps that of Kenseth or Biffle following the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond this Saturday night.
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