The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday May 29, 2007
Last Wednesday, it was announced that Pat Tryson, crew chief of the No. 16 Roush-Fenway Fords driven by Greg Biffle, was no longer employed with the team. While many would view that loss as a stake through the heart and a blow to one's ego, Tryson should have no problem attracting support out there in his Brave New World; in fact, he’ll see plenty of familiar faces that had long since disappeared from Roush. Part of a growing trend, Tryson is simply joining the ranks of some of the best competitors in NASCAR getting shown the door by one of the most dysfunctional operations in recent memory. Roush-Fenway Racing has made a science of alienating some of the best and promising talent in racing, so it’s no surprise Tryson got rubber stamped as their latest valuable victim.
Normally, when a crew chief or a driver leaves a team midseason, either voluntarily or kicking and screaming, you typically get the politically correct, canned responses. "It's all about chemistry," they say, or "We believe that this will benefit both parties and make us more competitive." Instead, Tryson showed up the next day on SPEED Channel proudly wearing an old Mark Martin T-shirt to make a clear-cut statement about where his heart will always lie. Tryson also suggested that his former boss "better get some stuff together, or they're going to lose Greg Biffle as well."
Point taken, especially considering Biffle hasn’t exactly been hiding the fact that he’s talking to several teams about future employment.
That SPEED interview with Tryson also revealed that he wasn’t even supposed to be with Roush this season; instead, he wanted out after the end of 2006. Unfortunately for him, Roush-Fenway was in the business of keeping him at bay, holding him to his contract that ran through 2007. Such a move was a bit of a shock considering how integral Tryson’s presence had been to Roush. The man had been with Roush-Fenway since late 2003, brought in to replace the struggling Ben Leslie and inevtiably helping to revive both Mark Martin's career and confidence in his abilities. Tryson did that and so much more, moving up to crew chief the following season as he and Martin went on to qualify for The Chase all three years, a distinction shared only with the duos of Jimmie Johnson / Chad Knaus and Matt Kenseth / Robbie Reiser.
Why would Tryson have ever wanted to leave? After all, Roush-Fenway had just turned their collective backs on Martin, their flagship driver, when he revealed he didn't want to be part of a full-time Truck Series ride. This revelation came after he had already postponed his retirement plans to bail Roush out once before, in 2006. You would think that with loyalty would come both gratitude and maximum effort, but it’s my opinion that neither of those occurred during Martin’s final year with Roush. During the Chase, the No. 6 team built just ONE new car with which to try and win Martin the Championship he so richly deserved. Of course, that car was in contention for the win at Lowe's Motor Speedway in October when it was destroyed in a savage, late-race accident. Through the rest of the Chase, the No. 6 team would show up running cars that were outdated and at best 15th place machines, even with Martin at the helm. His final race in the No. 6 car was to little fanfare, an uninspired 18th place finish at Homestead, a track where he and Biffle battled down to the wire for the win a year earlier.
In the wake of his departure, Tryson has been contacted by D.E.I., among others, in a bid to retain his services for this year and beyond. Ironically, Greg Biffle is also rumored to be the leading candidate to replace Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at D.E.I., forging a possible reunion with the two. When asked about Tryson's departure, Biffle began by prefacing his statement of his support of Pat Tryson with, "Well, I have to be a ‘team player’, you know?"
That’s not exactly an endorsement of his employer's policies and tactics.
But how did things quickly go south over at Ford’s factory powerhouse team? Well, the madness at Roush-Fenway Racing began in earnest in 2004. Jeff Burton, who had been toiling in mediocrity without a sponsor and got tired of being lost in the five-car monolith of Roush-Fenway, left in a shocking move to join Richard Childress Racing. The heir to the Roush veteran throne, Burton’s departure left a huge hole that would later grow larger once Martin jumped ship as well. Then, in mid-2005, defending champion Kurt Busch announced that he would be leaving Roush-Fenway for Penske Racing South. Busch had finally just begun to settle down and extinguish the hot headed reputation that he had earned with his legendary encounters with Jimmy Spencer in years prior, having won 14 races since his 2002 pairing with Jimmy Fennig in addition to the inaugural Nextel Cup. But none of that was enough to convince him to stick around.
Even with those defections, Roush still had more than its fair share of skill and opportunities to rise right back towards the top. Near the end of 2006, Pat Tryson also voiced his concern that maybe the team should start focusing on testing the Car of Tomorrow, a car that was rumored to be phased in much quicker than anticipated. As Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports continued their accelerated testing, this debate continued well into the 2007 season for the Ford powerhouse that quickly fell behind with the CoT. With the early struggles that the Roush-Fenway camp have endured with the CoT, perhaps Tryson was right; of course, for being correct, he was fired. In a touch of irony, Roush also announced this week that he has just now devoted a dedicated test team to tackle the nuances of the CoT.
Oh, really? Might be a little late on that one.
2006 was certainly a banner year for clearing out desks at Roush-Fenway Racing. Not only did they lose their anchor and flagship driver, they also lost two key elements in their success: Engineer Wally Brown and Greg Biffle's crew chief, Doug Richert. The year prior, Biffle and Richert won six races together and seemed primed to contend for the title the following year. Instead, they missed the Chase due to some mechanical woes and crashes not of their doing, yet still managed to win twice, including the season finale at Homestead. Meanwhile, Wally Brown would serve as Carl Edwards' crew chief in 2006, during what was probably the most ill-advised crew chief swap in recent memory, with Bob Osborne going to the No. 26 Jamie McMurray team. While Edwards never made the Chase, Brown did a fairly decent job, guiding the team to better finishes over the spring and summer that kept him within Chase contention.
Well, once the crew chiefs swapped back, Wally Brown swapped jobs altogether; he’s now an integral part of the engineering crew at Joe Gibbs Racing. Meanwhile, Doug Richert is leading the Toyota charge with Brian Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull operation, which by all accounts had the fastest car in the field in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
In addition to this mayhem within the Human Resources department at Roush, I also found the icing on the cake to be doing nothing about fielding a team for 2006 Busch Grand National Rookie of the Year Danny O'Quinn. Driving what was clearly not the primary Busch car in the Roush Busch stables, the No. 50 team showed signs of becoming a legitimate contender last year as the season progressed and O’Quinn got acclimated to the cars. Instead, O’Quinn was not only passed over for other talent, he sits dormant on the sidelines each week while Roush “tries their best” to get him a team that’s financially funded. This season, O'Quinn has made three starts in Busch, while elsewhere at Roush David Ragan continues to employ fabricators and recycle No. 6 sheetmetal that is sure to turn up on eBay or become the inspiration for some hillbilly lawn furniture.
Also not to be forgotten was the lack of effort by Roush made to sign the hottest commodity in racing, 16-year-old superstar Joey Logano. Martin had the inside line on Logano, but Roush-Fenway Racing President Geoff Smith poo-pooed his efforts, instead letting Joe Gibbs Racing sign the driver that Martin promises will be a Cup champion someday. The last time Martin made that promise, it concerned a relatively unknown driver named Matt Kenseth.
Coincidentally, the only team in the Roush-Fenway garage that seems immune to this perpetual drama is the No. 17 crew headed by Kenseth and Reiser themselves. Always an island of tranquility in the sea of chaos that is Roush-Fenway, they have not yet had to deal with the ever-popular practice of swapping crew chiefs just for the sake of it; changing car numbers, key personnel, or sponsors; or any other such actions their financiers see fit to make them do. The reason for this, as which may happen now with Biffle and Tryson, is they would most likely leave as one unit should that ever begin to happen all over again.
As to whether or not the crew chief change on the No. 16 was the right move, doing it before the longest race of the season probably wasn't the most effective strategy for questionable fuel mileage. Biffle put a sizable dent in the turn two SAFER barrier on lap 45, finishing dead last and dropping him to 19th in points. That’s not exactly the way you impress in your first race with Greg Erwin wearing a No. 16 uniform.
Now, Biffle has never been one to mince words or bite his tongue when he thinks he's being catered to unfairly; that puts Roush in a difficult position, as these problems mentioned may not deliver short-term fixes. Only this much is clear : with the dismissal of another one of the best people in the NASCAR garage this week in Pat Tryson, Roush has not only chalked up another causality of disloyalty but potentially greased the tracks for Biffle's train to pull out of the station as well.
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