In the euphoria surrounding his rain-shortened victory in the Daytona 500, the self-styled perfectionist Jack Roush must have permitted himself a wry smile. Winning the biggest race of all for the very first time — after 113 previous Sprint Cup victories in 21 years of ownership — must have felt like a harbinger of what was to come in 2009. No doubt, Roush thought it was an important first step en route to what he expects will be a third Sprint Cup crown.
Sadly, for the “Cat in the Hat,” it hasn’t proved to lean in that direction so far as after six rounds of action, all five of his drivers have, to some extent, underachieved. In fact during the last two weeks, at the two shortest tracks on the circuit, it’s been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. A 10th place finish for Jamie McMurray at the little old paperclip last Sunday is the highest finish of any Roush Fenway driver during that span, and the only thing worth writing home about for an organization which failed to run better than 15th at Bristol the week before.
Perhaps, though, this is simply a case of short track-itis. It’s easy, let’s not forget, to get swept up in other peoples’ messes, to see a good run turn into a horrible finish through plain misfortune or (other) driver error at the bullring that is Thunder Valley or at Martinsville, the shortest and slowest track the circuit. Mistakes are magnified, and any small snafu can become a steaming, fender-crunching mess in an instant. But for Roush, their drivers are in the midst of one too many mistakes; at the moment, just two of the five are listed in the top 12 in points (Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, hanging on for dear life in 12th). Among those well outside it include McMurray, David Ragan, and Greg Biffle, with Roush affiliate Yates Racing struggling with both Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard.
Since the Chase format artificially shortens the season into regular and postseason portions, the emphasis placed on making that final field of 12 after the cutoff race in Richmond could not be higher — especially with this economy and sponsors leery of renewing contracts. That’s not good news for Roush, though, as the historical evidence from the five previous iterations of the Chase suggests that the standings after six races tend to mirror very closely the final makeup of the field of 12 Chase drivers. With that in mind, there can be no doubt that the five wheelmen of Roush Fenway Racing need to bounce back quickly at the wide open vistas of Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.
I’ll start with Kenseth. Now, I’m sure fans of the driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford Fusion will be (virtually) screaming at me over the word “slump,” especially since he went on an early season tear to win the first two races. But since then, it’s been a completely different story for the Wisconsinite. After such a stellar start to the season, Kenseth finished dead last at Vegas (his engine expired after just six laps), 12th in Atlanta (the last car on the lead lap), 33rd at Bristol (where he barely rated a mention all night long) and 23rd at Martinsville (after going a lap down early thanks to a tire miscue on pit road). The 2003 Cup champ still sits in the all-important top 12, but remains only seven points ahead of wily veteran Jeff Burton in 13th. The good news for Kenseth, though, is that he has run well at the “cookie-cutter” tracks of 1.5 to 2 miles in length — tracks that make up half of this year’s ten race playoff. As he himself pointed out after Fontana: “Really, this is the start of the type of racing that makes up the bulk of the schedule, and whether you run good or bad at these tracks has more of a determining factor on making the Chase or running for a championship.”
After a third place finish overall in 2008, much was expected of Biffle in 2009. But it’s fair to say the Biff has not matched those preseason expectations at this point. The No. 16 looked like Bambi on ice for much of Speedweeks, and he was probably relatively happy to escape with a 20th place finish at Daytona. Two good weeks followed after that (fourth – Fontana; seventh – Vegas), but it’s been all downhill since leaving Sin City for him. A crash in Atlanta relegated Biffle to 34th while an engine expiring saw him finish 39th at Bristol where his hauler, replete with a wrecked vehicle, left the track well before the race had completed. He then finished 23rd at Martinsville despite having started 10th thanks to the rainout in qualifying, but as Biff noted after the race: “This track is just not my track. We’ve run as good as we can here… but it’s tough for us. We could never get the thing to turn and get good grip off. Every once in awhile, we’d run good, but we’re just missing that little bit of something. We’ll keep working on it, and we’ll get it one of these days.” Mired in 23rd in the standings, a full 99 points out of 12th place, Biffle can’t afford to have too many more bad days. The hole he’s dug is not insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll need to scratch and claw his way back into the Chase field by leapfrogging a handful of strong contenders now ahead of him.
Continuing this mediocrity tour, McMurray sits one place and four points ahead of the Biff in 22nd place overall. With Donnie Wingo back atop the pit box this year and the threat of contraction at the end of the season (Roush will have to scale back, per NASCAR, from five to four teams), the incentive was more than there for the Joplin, MO native to get up on the wheel from the drop of the first green flag at Daytona. And although he hasn’t had a disastrous start to 2009, it’s not been the all guns blazing effort fans of the driver might have hoped for. 37th in the Daytona 500, a hapless victim in the Dale Earnhardt, Jr./Brian Vickers “battle of the scruffy bearded egos,” was followed by a 16th place run at Fontana, an encouraging ninth place at Las Vegas, and a 15th place effort in Atlanta. But the good “mo” evaporated at Bristol, where McMurray mirrored his Daytona finish with a 37th place run — dropping him all the way down to 28th in the standings.
So, in the context of his season, 10th at Martinsville was a solid effort tempered, a little, by his post-race comments: “We started so far in the back, and typically I run well here; but I always qualify well, and it makes it so much easier when you’re up front [he started 28th]. Our car had a tremendous amount of speed in it, but I just could not pass. I could catch guys pretty easy and I just couldn’t pass them, so we struggled just to get track position.”
Now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I saw plenty of passing all day at Martinsville. And if McMurray is complaining about passing at short tracks… I can’t wait to see his comments next weekend (or at other upcoming cookie cutters). The simple fact is a weak beginning doesn’t bode well for McMurray, it really doesn’t.
Another driver who’s struggled is Ragan. Much was expected of the Unadilla, GA native, the youngest man in the RFR stable at 23 entering 2009. After a 13th place overall finish last year, new sponsor colors courtesy of UPS, and a fantastic new TV ad, many pundits expected Ragan to kick it on this year and make the Chase for the first time — perhaps even picking up a maiden win in the process. A sixth place effort at Daytona was a solid start for him; but since then, a 17th in California and 19th in Atlanta were sandwiched by a 42nd place finish in Vegas where, like Kenseth, the team’s engine expired. Killing any leftover momentum from last year, the last two weeks have not been much prettier for Ragan with two consecutive 27th place finishes. It doesn’t take a math genius to work out that more of the same is going to put the kibosh on his Chase chances before we even get to the All-Star Race.
Last but not least is Cousin Carl, who finished 26th Sunday at a track he traditionally does not run well at. A pit road miscue, followed by a cut left rear tire courtesy of David Reutimann, translated into a bad points day for the man with the toothiest smile in professional sports. Edwards started last season like the proverbial “bat out of hell,” winning two of the first three races. 2009 hasn’t been quite so kind, though; an 18th at Daytona, seventh at Fontana, and 17th at Vegas were followed by his best run to date in Atlanta, where he finished third. A 15th place effort at Bristol (a track he won at last August) was the preface to Sunday’s ho-hum finish for Edwards. As a result, last year’s championship runner-up sits eighth in the overall standings, 51 points ahead of 13th. Maybe marriage isn’t quite the boost to the results he’d been told it was…
So, what’s wrong here then? Is the poor early season in part due to lack of testing at Roush? Kenseth disagrees. “It depends on the week for me,” he says of his opinion towards that rule. “I think though, seriously, overall, I think it’s a great idea. I think with the amount of practice we have here with this car that’s been the same rules for two years — a full year and a half of racing going on the third season without moving splitter heights, or changing any of the aerodynamic balances, none of that stuff we mess with anymore, so I don’t think it’s a big deal. We’ve all been working with the car and everybody has a basic idea of where to start… and I think the practice at the track is really adequate. It’s not like the old car where you could put two totally different bodies on the cars and go to the track and test and say, ‘Oh yeah, this one drives way better than that one.’ I mean, those days are kind of gone, unless they ever open the rulebook back up again. All of the cars are pretty close to the same, so you just bring a car to the track and start working on it.”
So, a season that started out with great expectations hasn’t exactly turned out as scripted so far for Jack Roush and his Roush racers. The rapture of the first two week’s worth of wins from Matt Kenseth has well and truly been consigned to the bucket marked “past history.” Yes, Edwards and Kenseth (just barely) sit in the top 12 in points, but the Biff, McMurray, and Ragan are very much on the outside looking in. And none of the three, not even Ragan, who is 145 points out of 12th place, are done yet in terms of the Chase — but many more bad weekends like we’ve seen in the past couple weeks and their 2009 campaigns will be over no sooner than they had begun.