NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Back to the Few Sure – Roush Looks to Rebound from Miserable Season at the Friendly Confines of Daytona

Remember that scene in Dumb & Dumber when Lloyd Christmas starts saying, “Find a happy place…?”

Earlier this week, the stress of the day job got to be a bit much, so during lunch I went to my favorite place of refuge – the auto parts store. Don’t ask me why, but there is something cathartic and relaxing about walking through racks of tires, and getting a snout-full of Michelin; there is simply nothing better to me than the smell of a tire store. That coupled with rack upon rack of synthetic motor oils, a festival of filters and every kind of concentrated cleaner or stop-leak concoction one could conjure, it was a little bit of heaven in what had become a hellish day.

Hey, everybody is into some freaky stuff. This is about as wild as it gets for me, so shut up.

I’ve had similar feelings this week leading up to the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (whatever happened to just calling it The Firecracker 400?) at Daytona. In seasons past, no matter how mundane the racing was or how rough of a going it was for my driver (I’m a – ahem – “journalist” now; so I have shunned any bias for objectivity), I always looked forward to rolling out of bed late on a holiday weekend and watching the second Daytona race of the year over some cold pizza. The Big D has always been a homecoming of sorts for NASCAR, and it also marks the halfway point of the season. By now the Silly Season rumor mill is just starting to get cranking, and with as much as been written in recent weeks regarding bankruptcies, foregone Federal funding, as well as the accusations of Jeremy Mayfield tweaking on high-speed chicken feed, a bit of normalcy in the form of a familiar face is a welcome sight.

Daytona is always seen as a place where you can start fresh again, and for some teams, it is pause that is sorely needed – and such is the case for Roush Fenway Racing this season.

What a difference a year makes – or in this case just five months. Last year at this time, Carl Edwards was in the process of passing Kyle Busch for the lead when the caution came out during the white-flag lap. This past February, Matt Kenseth, with new crew chief Drew Blickesderfer atop the Killer Bees’ war wagon, captured NASCAR’s biggest prize in the Daytona 500, following that up with a decisive victory the following week in California. Since then, a drought of biblical proportions has befallen Ford’s flagship (and technically, it’s only) team, with a smattering of laps lead and top 10s among their five-car operation.

Kenseth has scored just a pair of top fives since California, and has not really been a factor in any race since then. Thus, it is only fitting that his car is sponsored by R&L Carriers this weekend… the No. 17 Fusion has been running as if hauling a 53’ trailer full of rubber dog dung around the Sprint Cup tour. Greg Biffle has faired somewhat better as of late – Michigan was a victory in sight until the fuel tank ran dry a mile too soon. At New Hampshire last weekend, the No. 16 looked like it might put up a fight until he bounced it off the wall early in the going.

The No. 99 of Edwards was supposed to be the car to contend with this year after pushing Jimmie Johnson to the brink in the 2008 Chase, winning three of the final four races. Under the previous year-long cumulative points standings, Edwards would have won the 2008 Sprint Cup by 16 markers over Johnson. This year however, the highlight real for the No. 99 has been comprised mainly of Aflac and Subway commercials, along with a minor altercation on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. Even on the Nationwide side of things, where he normally can be counted on to win with Metamucil-like regularity, it took until two weeks ago at Milwaukee to score his first win of 2009.

That brings us to the other two horses in the Roush stable, David Ragan and Jamie McMurray; one of whom is destined for the glue factory – or Yates Racing – at the conclusion of the 2009 season, to comply with NASCAR’s new four team limit for car owners.

To say that Ragan’s year has been a disappointment would be akin to saying new car sales are a bit soft for The Big Three. While he hasn’t been a dart without feathers as Tony Stewart once deemed him, the performance of the No. 6 car has to have the folks at UPS throwing their collective hands up in the air, wondering when they will have a car that has a shot at getting near victory lane. Ragan has but one top-10 finish this year, a sixth-place run at Daytona to start the season. That one lone bright spot however has been overshadowed by four DNFs already this year, and a decidedly uncompetitive car that has sank him with a 25.3 average finish and dropped him to 30th in points.

And this was supposed to be his breakout season where he won a race and made the Chase. At least he got that Nationwide win back at Talladega in the spring with that nifty side draft move coming to the line. Though after seeing his indifferent reaction to winning his first race in the No. 6 car in the Nationwide ranks, I’m afraid he’d bypass victory lane and just drive it straight to the trailer when he wins his first Cup race.

Across the way in the land of misfit Fords is McMurray. After closing out 2008 with four top fives in the last six races – including three straight third-place efforts to end the season – the decision was made to bring in his former crew chief Donnie Wingo to replace Larry Carter. The results have been predictable, with McMurray having a very McMurray year; three top 10s, with the best being a finish of seventh, and leading only one more lap in competition than I have.

Taking that into consideration, I would suggest that maybe he would be the odd-man out at Roush Fenway, but he has the coveted Crown Royal sponsorship and the nicest hair, so he will probably remain in place and continue celebrating the 10th anniversary of the No. 26 car’s wildly mediocre and fruitless 1999 season.

Now having kicked everybody while they’re down and doing so knowing damned well there is no way I could possibly do half as well as they are doing, this is a prime example of why the second trip to Daytona is the perfect medicine for an organization that has struggled to get back up to speed this year as this bunch has.

No other track sets the stage for a Roush rebound like Daytona does.

Kenseth won the last race here back in February, while Edwards was in the process of winning it last July before it ended prematurely. Edwards was also on his way to a win at the last restrictor-plate race before he attempted to lateral park his car by the catchfence at Talladega. McMurray won his last race (and second ever) here in 2007 when he caught the slightest puff of air off of Busch’s car coming to the checkered flag, and Biffle won his first career Cup race back in here in 2003 driving the Grainger machine. Ragan’s best run was here at the 500 a few months back, and that frantic dash to the stripe at Talladega proves he has restrictor-plate chops to be sure.

Now the only thing to make this a perfect Daytona race weekend, would be if they pulled the trigger on this thing before noon. I realize that I stand a better chance of whizzing out an Iraqi oil fire than seeing that happen.

More than a few teams and drivers are glad to be back in Daytona this weekend besides just the Roush teams. While a win here in the heat of the summer might not carry the same weight as one in the winter, it still rates as one of the races every driver would like to add to their wish list of wins. The group at Roush Fenway is probably no different, but at this point, they’d be happy with a win anywhere… even if it’s a rain-shortened one like we had last week or this past February at the Daytona 500.

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