There were three big reasons for three of NASCAR’s “Big Four” owners to smile on Saturday night. Joe Gibbs was busy congratulating Kyle Busch in victory lane, his young prodigy scoring a season-leading third win while jumping to fifth in points. Behind him, Hendrick “B” team Stewart-Haas Racing had their owner/driver knocking on the door, putting together a runner-up finish that combined with teammate Ryan Newman’s second straight top five in a row. Combine that with Jeff Gordon retaking the points lead, and there was plenty to be happy about over in the Hendrick camp. Last but not least, Saturday night was Jeff Burton’s 2009 coming out party, as he clearly got his act together for owner Richard Childress – finishing third on a night where a mid-race spin could have left him 25th. Clearly, it was a time in which NASCAR’s Chase-eligible owners from last season were able to prove how and why they made the playoffs their own personal playground.
Of course, that came with one notable exception… Jack Roush.
Unfortunately, Roush’s five-car contingent wound up far from the flashbulbs of photographers and the hubbub of media interviews at Richmond. Instead, they were busy loading up in relative obscurity after failing to lead even one of the 400 laps on Saturday night. Coming home with finishes of seventh, 13th, 17th, 23rd and 26th, the team holding up the gold standard for the Blue Oval has instead been looking especially blue as of late. Since winning the first two races of the season with Matt Kenseth, the team’s been shut out of victory lane while posting just 12 top-10 finishes in their last 40 starts. At the moment, the organization that once put all of its cars in the Chase has just three clinging to the bottom rungs of the top 12, with Carl Edwards ninth, Greg Biffle 11th, and Kenseth sitting smack on the bubble in 12th. And with Jamie McMurray and David Ragan well outside the top 20, three is just about as good as it’ll get for Roush in the playoffs this year.
But that’s not all – an organization that prides itself on running up front isn’t even putting itself in position to do so. A quick look at the “Laps Led” department since Las Vegas tells you all you need to know about the current state of the organization:
Greg Biffle: 134
Matt Kenseth: 64
Carl Edwards: 41
David Ragan: 3
Jamie McMurray: 0 (and zero laps led ALL year)
Considering Gordon alone has led 412 laps during that stretch, it’s safe to say the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization finds itself a bit off the pace.
So, what’s going wrong? It appears the guys on pit road have to shoulder at least some of the blame here. With the Car of Tomorrow harder than ever to maneuver through traffic, track position proves critical in getting your car in position to win – and Roush cars have clearly struggled to gain it when they’ve needed it the most. Edwards and Biffle in particular have struggled with their pit stops this season, with Edwards’s team actually replacing crew member Corey Quick after a series of poor performances that culminated at Texas. Nowhere were the problems more apparent than that race, where a possible winning car got turned into a mid-pack contender after Edwards lost 10 spots on the final round of stops. Meanwhile, Biffle struggled through not one but two bad stops caused by failed lugnut glue, causing pieces on his tires to fall off and his No. 16 Ford to battle back through the pack.
“The guys get down because the fingers get pointed to them for a slow stop,” admitted Biffle that Sunday. “It’s hard.”
But one of the biggest issues of all surrounding this slump is Roush’s sudden weakness at short tracks. Through the three races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, the team has posted a total of two top-10 finishes in 15 starts – both of which came from McMurray’s mediocre No. 26 car. Overall, the organization is putting together a 23.4 average finish to match a pathetic showing of 0-for-1500 in the laps led department. Clearly, that’s not going to get the job done.
Richmond exemplified their struggles, with Edwards spun out by David Stremme only to get slammed into by his own teammate, McMurray, who lost control avoiding the spin. Later on, Edwards’s team made a gamble to stay out on old tires, but the move backfired when a long green-flag run at the finish left the AFLAC Ford a sitting duck – literally. Teammate Ragan got left in the same boat with a strategy that’s worked just like his Cup career – from promising to problematic in little more than a blink of an eye.
“If we had a good pit stop and we were on the right cycle as far as pitting, we were a top-10 car,” Ragan explained. “But if we had a goof on pit road or if I made a mistake on a restart and we lost a few spots, we just couldn’t seem to go anywhere. It was typical short-track racing. It’s all about track position and that’s ultimately what won the race for everyone and that’s what cost us a top-10 finish.”
It was the latest wrong decision that left you scratching your heads – especially when you consider how well RFR started off 2009. Coming into the season with a great deal of momentum, Edwards’s November hot streak put him within a whisker of taking the championship from Jimmie Johnson and established the organization had finally figured out the CoT. When that was followed up by a 2-for-2 start by Kenseth, you had an organization looking like it had positioned itself to run away from the rest of the field. But within 10 laps of the green at Las Vegas, Kenseth’s engine went sour in his bid to win three straight; he finished dead last that day, one of a handful of problems for Roush teams at a track they’ve dominated in years past.
Since then, we’ve yet to see RFR make a statement they’re going to be a contender come playoff time. Yes, it’s still early, and yes, there’s plenty of time to turn it around.
They just better be careful not to wait too much longer before turning on the jets.