As the sun went down on a gorgeous, windy afternoon in Las Vegas, Carl Edwards did a backflip to the delight of the crowd. With his second straight victory in as many races – a win that will stand despite failing post-race inspection – he’s made his case for Ford’s resurgent operation.
And with that, I’ll do a little gymnastic move of my own – cartwheeling away from a prediction that’s all but torn to pieces.
Just a week and a half ago on SI.com, I profiled the struggles of the Fusions after Daytona. With a best finish of 10th, some questions on horsepower and two teammates taking each other out, it hadn’t been the best of Speedweeks for the Ford faithful; and with Roush Fenway Racing’s poor showing with the CoT compared to other mega-teams in 2007, it seemed this would be the year the Blue Ovals fell off the charts.
Well, they fell off the charts, alright; the accolades have come so fast and furious these past two weeks, it’s hard to keep up. An Edwards win Sunday led a fleet of three Roush Fenway cars in the top 10 (Greg Biffle, third; David Ragan, sixth) to go along with an eighth-place finish for Yates Racing’s Travis Kvapil. In fact, the Blue Ovals could have pulled a 1-2-3 sweep if not for a late-race accident that knocked Matt Kenseth out of contention. Coming off a win by Edwards the week before at California, that’s now two wins in three races to start off the season for Ford – the first time that’s happened since 2004. Things are so good, even Lady Luck is hedging her bets; Sunday, Edwards could have been crippled when a tire rolled out of his pit during a stop, but NASCAR ruled in a controversial call that a cameraman got in the way. The No. 99 car was allowed to hold its spot, all but assuring Edwards’s path back to Victory Lane.
The team did so for the second straight week, overcoming an engine that’s supposedly outdated and in dire need of a tuneup. But so much for horsepower being a problem; initial concerns about the Fusions having less than their competition have proven irrelevant in a CoT era where handling appears to trump all. And while Kenseth and Ragan take their sweet time making up after the Daytona debacle, it appears overall teammate strife isn’t as bad at RFR as it once appeared. In fact, it may be a bonus; early results have Kenseth and Edwards staging a good-natured competition to remain top dog at the front of that pack.
Boy, was I off-base. Good thing for me, Jack Roush doesn’t pay attention to what the media says.
“It would be real interesting to sit down and read everything that everybody is gonna write about domination and what the state of competition is in Sprint Cup racing,” he said after Edwards’s latest victory. “I’ll do my very best not to read that. We weren’t as bad as it looked like when we couldn’t win a race for part of last year.”
As they always say, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, the signs of Roush Fenway improvement were there; Edwards’s car was a rocket ship at both Texas and Phoenix last November before mechanical woes sent him to the sidelines. In the meantime, Kenseth railed off five consecutive top-five finishes to close out the year, while Biffle crawled out of a slump by stealing a win at Kansas. Still, none of that compared to the biggest offseason move RFR made; adding solid engineers to their program.
“I had contact with my friends at Ford – Edsel Ford and of course Dan Davis and Doug Hervey – about what the challenges were and Ford Motor Company has put into our program at least 30% more [than last season],” added Roush. “That allowed us to get the tire engineer that we needed, the staff behind the seven-poster – it allowed us to more effectively use our K&C machine. The guy who is right on top of that, of course, is Chris Andrews.”
That’s the same Chris Andrews who was part of Evernham Motorsports during its 2006 resurgence; you know, the one where Kasey Kahne won six races and established himself as a title contender. While Andrews was over calling the shots for a struggling Jeremy Mayfield, he obviously learned enough from one of the sport’s technology-based organizations to instill the changes needed to shape the future of Roush Fenway.
Of course, with the advent of technology comes lots and lots of testing – sessions that Roush was initially reluctant to be part of, a misstep that handicapped his team for much of 2007.
“I misjudged what NASCAR was gonna do with regard to the test policy with the CoT,” Roush explained. “When we went to Bristol [in 2007], it was real clear that we were way behind. When I went to ask the guys, ‘How did that happen?’ They said, ‘Well, these other folks have been testing for thousands of miles, and we haven’t been there yet.’
“But by the time we finished up in the Chase, I felt and the guys felt that we had pretty much caught up. But the year was behind us – so, I listened more carefully and I watched more carefully over the winter, and I think that we’re caught up. I certainly don’t feel that we have an advantage, but I think that on any given Sunday there are probably 20 cars that could win the race, and four or five of them are our cars and I feel proud of that.”
Such early season strength speaks volumes to Ford’s earlier comments this month that they were continuing to pour resources into racing for the long haul. With sales woes continuing to pile up in Detroit, it appeared the Blue Ovals would appear most vulnerable of all to Toyota’s increased competitiveness; instead, they’ve simply stepped up their game.
“We’ve got the resources now for the level of commitment that I’m aware of that the other manufacturers have made,” said Roush. We’ve got the resources to be competitive and without Ford’s support, we couldn’t have done that.”
It’s still not all roses over in the Blue Oval camp. Jamie McMurray spun early, was out to lunch the whole day and appears to be driving his way out of Roush’s No. 26 Ford. Kvapil drove an unsponsored No. 28 car Sunday, and despite the talk the team is full-time to stay, who knows how long they can survive without a sponsor. Add in the mess from the Wood Brothers’ shop and a ho-hum start by David Gilliland, and it’s clear Roush Fenway is the only sure thing Ford’s got on its plate right now.
Good thing it’s hitting homers right out of the box.
“I think we are close to the form that we were in 2005, where it just seemed like a Roush Fenway car would win every week,” added Edwards.
At this point, that’s hard to doubt in perhaps the millionth example of how predictions always get trumped by reality.