Sometimes, the story of a weekend is all in the numbers.
*7.* That’s how many years it’s been since a Ford tasted the champagne of a Cup Series championship. It was the first and only won by the Blue Ovals under the Chase system, Kurt Busch fending off pre-dynasty Jimmie Johnson to win the inaugural playoff format by a mere eight points. Completing a second straight title for the Roush organization, backing up Matt Kenseth’s consistency grab in 2003, it looked like their five-car Goliath, not Hendrick’s four-car Goliath-to-be, was poised to win plenty more. While Chevy’s top dog dealt with the aftermath of a devastating tragedy – losing ten people in a Martinsville plane crash, including the boss’ son Ricky and head engine whiz Randy Dorton – their Ford counterparts had produced two of the sport’s “young guns,” already peaking long before entering their prime.
“This is a new look and a new face for NASCAR,” Busch said. “The possibilities are endless and to be a champion, the second in a row for Jack Roush… hopefully I can keep this going another 10 years.”
In just one more, he was gone, and Roush hasn’t sniffed the hardware since. Yet here we are, seven races into 2011 – see how the number theme works? – while sitting on top of the points with Carl Edwards. Yes, this year may finally be their time, but who would have ever thought it’d take this long?
*6.* That’s the record Jimmie Johnson threatens to reset, a championship streak putting him on the precipice of unprecedented territory in nearly any type of professional sport. Sitting third in the standings, the No. 48 sits winless, but not without self-assurance, posting 245 laps led and five top-11 finishes since February to remind us all that spring serves as a test session for when their points really start to count.
Saturday night didn’t fully anoint Kenseth or Ford as Johnson’s biggest adversary. But there are certainly historical signs to point in that direction. In two of the last three years, the man who won this race – Carl Edwards in ’08, Denny Hamlin last year – finished the season the championship runner-up. And considering the fact intermediate tracks like this one – well, including this one as the Cup Series returns to Texas in November – make up five of the ten races on the postseason schedule, Saturday night was like target practice where all the top teams could flex their muscle.
Johnson’s setup, while designed to transition well into nighttime, never had enough to crack the back edge of the top 10. Ford’s? It put the entire Roush Fenway fleet inside the top 8, snapped a 76-race losing streak for Kenseth and left Blue Ovals in front for 191 of 334 laps. We’ll have to get to Charlotte, a similar style track which also gets placed directly in the Chase to make firmer, more accurate judgments; but for now, Texas showcased how a full-scale manufacturer is making their case to become J.J.’s biggest rival.
*5.* The number of wins in Ford’s super slump, from February 2009 to November 2010. It was an embarrassing total, their worst drought in over 25 years made ten times worse by how it began: Matt Kenseth’s victory in the ’09 Daytona 500. From bad simulations (engineering gone awry that took until the spring of 2010 to fix at Roush) from bad finances (ever hear the name George Gillett?) to simple bad luck, the Blue Ovals ended every week badly beaten by either the Hendrick onslaught or a Joe Gibbs Racing trio that seemed younger, faster, more innovative.
Yet here we are, nine races later and Ford has won the last five, including the sport’s biggest race with perhaps its most promising future star: Trevor Bayne. Off the track, the automaker has recovered from the economic crash better than its racing counterparts – boasting a $6.6 billion profit in 2010 – and has the money to put behind its mechanical brilliance going forward.
“We tuned up our engineering program with Ford’s help over the winter and we got a new nose,” Jack Roush explained, trying to pin down the manufacturer’s handling brilliance as of late. “Everybody got a new nose this year, but our new nose was better than our old nose, I think. And we’ve had our FR9 engine really up to speed.”
It’s a quote verified by their biggest rivals, the horsepower now rivaling even those at Hendrick or Earnhardt Childress Racing. Add in reliability – zero engine failures for the RFR contingent – and for a sport consumed by cycles, this one’s quickly heading in an upward direction.
*4.* The number of crew chiefs Kenseth has had since Robbie Reiser left the pit box four years ago – at the conclusion of the 2007 season. From Chip Bolin, to Drew Blickensderfer, to Todd Parrott, no one seemed to offer the chemistry those two had together, a divorce without a competent remarriage until Jack Roush chose to assign Ol’ Reliable over to the No. 17 from R&D – ’04 championship crew chief (remember how this article started?) Jimmy Fennig.
“Jimmy is a consummate stock car racer,” Roush explained. “He can run your R&D team. He can take your rookie driver. Heck, he even won a championship with Kurt Busch. He can do anything (laughing). Jimmy has done it all.”
“Jimmy’s only worked for three people. He worked for Mark Martin early on. He worked for Bobby Allison, and he worked for Roush Fenway. And he’s — Jimmy is one of the guys I look to give me advice behind and around and above the engineers on what’s right and what’s wrong about our deal. Nobody did a better job running our R & D program than Jimmy. And when we went through a number of crew chiefs trying to find a combination that would be best for Matt through kind of the dark days when it seemed like we couldn’t get it right, Jimmy stepped back up and jumped in front, and he’s done a better job than I think anybody could today with Matt.”
*3.* The number of runner-up Chase finishes for Ford since that last title. Kenseth has one (’06), Edwards has one (’08), and the third goes to Greg Biffle (’05) who, despite a slow start may very well be part of the Chase picture at the end the way these cars have been running. Biffle and Kenseth are championship tested; Edwards has learned from a Talladega mistake turned Kevin Harvick tussle that cost him his shot. Should any of them be the main adversary entering Johnson’s ten-race sprint, mind games won’t work the way they did against Hamlin down the stretch last season.
*2.* A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, part of a revamped, slimmed-down Richard Petty Motorsports program that’s given Jack Roush what he’s desired for the better part of three years: the Blue Oval answer to Stewart-Haas Racing. Far removed from the Gillett financial disaster of 2010, RPM has new owners with fresh cash and a focused attitude to help that program return to the top. Their two-car driver lineup has a common denominator of something to prove; both coming off frustrating seasons, the cocky Californian and that Tasmanian Devil are higher in points than any of the RPM cars finished in 2010.
And with their house in order, RPM serves as the type of “B” team that can assist, not weigh down an equipment and chassis-sharing program the same way SHR has, at times, provided the extra information boost with Hendrick Motorsports. The number of Fords may have been slimmed down this season, but there’s hardly a weak link in the bunch unless you count the cash-strapped, barely surviving Front Row Motorsports clan.
*1.* The singular goal of all the Ford programs: a championship that’ll stop the Johnson reign of dominance and wake up a NASCAR nation numbed to a virtual cakewalk more often than not at Homestead each November. Can they do it? No one knows.
But as the world wakes up on Monday one-quarter of the way through stock car’s regular season, they’ve positioned themselves better than anyone else to achieve it. Now, to wait for their rival, a man with a certain No. 48 on the side of his car to step up to the plate…