The struggles of Roush Fenway Racing for the past two seasons have been well documented in the NASCAR community. Prior to this weekend, RFR was winless going back to October of last year at Talladega (won by Jamie McMurray, who, ironically, is having a dream season over at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing). As a matter of fact, RFR has only three wins in the past 56 races, with just one of those occurring at a non-restrictor plate track. The stable has been needing a win in the worst way.
However, all of that became irrelevant on Tuesday when Jack Roush was lucky to walk away from his second serious plane crash in the past eight years. Despite being able to exit the plane under his own power, Jack needed surgery to repair facial injuries sustained in an incident where he crashed trying to land on a runway in Oshkosh, Wis. He is resting in serious, but stable condition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with an uncertain timetable as to when he’ll return to the racetrack. Heading into the weekend, it was clear a win for the Roush boys would mean so much more than just another trophy in the display case… it would be the most potent “Get Well” card the Cat in the Hat could receive.
While the plane crash certainly put the big things in life into perspective, one could not help but wonder what effect it might have – positive or negative – on the building momentum the organization was picking up over the past few weeks. The new FR9 engine from Ford has appeared to help. Carl Edwards, who had a season best finish of second at Chicago a few weeks ago, has enjoyed three consecutive top 10s, and Greg Biffle certainly appeared capable of winning the Brickyard 400 last week before settling for a strong third-place finish. Would Jack’s misfortune be a distraction or an incentive to do better?
With such a promising drive at Indy, Biffle’s crew chief Greg Erwin decided to bring that same car to Pocono. “With the way we ran last week at Indy, there’s obviously something about that car,” Erwin said. “It was a brand new car for us going to Indy, so it had no history. It’s a little bit different chassis and it’s got some things in the body that are maybe the next evolution of what we’re doing at Roush. With the position we’re in as far as points right now, plus we didn’t have an exceptionally strong run here in June, and with only a handful of races to go before the Chase starts, it seemed like the right thing to do — to take the car that looked like it gave us our strongest run of the season back to the next race.”
Fast forward to Sunday. All four of the Roush Fenway cars sported “Get Back To The Track Jack” decals in support of their boss, all hoping to win one for the Cat in the Hat. While it appeared that none them would win in the early going, it was obvious that they would do whatever it took. During the first caution, Biffle and Matt Kenseth were the only two drivers to gamble with just two tires. Even though it didn’t work out for Kenseth, the No. 16 was able to hang in with the leaders and remain in the top 10 for the next two green-flag pit stops. This proved to be a call that would prove to make the difference later on.
By the next caution at lap 122, Biffle had fallen back to the 12th position. Again, the No. 16 team would change only two tires to take the lead. Just like last time, Biffle was able to run with the leaders for a few laps before going to the back end of the top 10. While it didn’t look like they had a race-winning car, Erwin was willing to roll the dice.
The following 40 laps proved to be chaotic, which included a horrific-looking crash involving Elliott Sadler. The wreck, along with light rain showers, caused a lengthy red flag which gave all the teams plenty of time to mull over race strategy. For a while, it looked like the race would not resume, with Jeff Gordon in position to end his career’s longest winless drought. But the rain subsided, track repairs were made, the yellow flag deployed and the teams had to decide whether to pit for tires or track position. The race was suddenly back on. Race leader Gordon, along with other frontrunners Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart, went with four. Nine drivers beat them off pit road, having only taken two tires. Of those nine, guess who came off first? That’s right: Greg Biffle.
For the final restart with 20 to go, the only person standing in Biffle’s way was Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish, looking for his first ever win, didn’t even pit during the final caution and was hoping Mother Nature would be on his side. Biffle made quick work of the No. 77, taking just a couple of laps to get by. And this time, Biffle’s pace didn’t drop off at all. Instead, the car consistently logged the fastest laps on the last run, getting his lead up to over five seconds at one point.
Erwin attributed the lengthy caution and cooling temperatures to the two tires working better late in the race. “It was an extended caution; that plays into it. Red flag, we’re driving around,” he said. “The left sides are cooling down, the weather is cooling down. You’re gaining more and more benefit.”
Yet even with a seemingly insurmountable lead, it wasn’t until the final few laps when Biffle started thinking about winning for Jack. “Yeah, I have to tell you that when it got to be five to go, I started thinking about it,” he explained. “You know, I started thinking, ‘This race is meant to be. It’s for Jack.’”
With the white flag waving, Biffle was about to end Ford’s 23-race winless streak. But more importantly, he was giving Jack Roush a nice recovery gift with a trip to victory lane. Coming off turn 3 for the final time, Biffle radioed his crew, “This one’s for Jack.”
The performance obviously had Roush feeling good; he was able to talk to his driver in the winner’s circle on the phone.
“In victory lane, he told me that he had never met somebody that had the will to win like I do,” said a beaming Biffle in his post-race press confidence. “He said he didn’t say that because I drive for him; he said he feels that out of any of the drivers. You know, kind of put goosebumps on my arms. I’m glad he thinks of me like that.”
For Biffle, this victory ended a 64-race winless streak. His last one came in the fall of 2008, when he beat Roush Fenway teammates Edwards and Kenseth in an epic battle at Dover, part of a 2-for-2 start to the Chase that left him a surprise title contender.
After an inconsistent season, could Biffle be on the way towards making a similar charge? It’s possible … but this week, those Roush Fenway teams aren’t thinking about that. Instead, their minds are on a fallen friend, proud to deliver a terrific get well present that will surely speed an ailing car owner on his road to recovery.
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