Race Weekend Central

Chasing Self-Destruction: Ford’s Sprint Cup Title Hopes Fall Apart

Roush Fenway Racing may have lost a truck arm Sunday at Dover, courtesy the No. 17 Ford of Matt Kenseth but in the stands they quickly gained themselves a new fan: Eeyore. How could the famous donkey, known for a need of modern day antidepressants _not_ be attracted to a trio of riveting quotes like these?

“In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that’s not good. Our performance hasn’t been very good either, so I don’t know. Today was a struggle. This is probably the worst we’ve run here for as long as I can remember. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk.” _Kenseth_

With Matt Kenseth sitting as a “lame duck,” Roush Fenway Racing has lost its leader … and it shows in their on-track performance.

“There’s no catch-up in this game anymore. When you’re three laps down, there’s nothing we can do. That really kind of takes us out of the title hunt — it’s pretty much a stretch for us right now.” _Greg Biffle_

“We didn’t deserve to finish that far forward, but we had some lucky breaks and my guys did a good job on pit road. It seemed like a lot of us from Roush Fenway struggled and we’ve got to go back and understand exactly what we’re missing.” _Carl Edwards (who finished fifth, by the way)_

So it went, Ford’s Chase failure peaking with the type of reactions that make you wonder how a little black raincloud didn’t come together and pour down on these drivers while they spoke. Three races in, the harsh reality of their postseason has Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, the point leaders for 22 of the first 26 races during the Sprint Cup season sitting a distant 11th and 12th. Combined, they’re 123 points outside the lead, have a putrid average finish of 19.0 and have yet to register a top-10 result in a title race that won’t include them down the stretch. Carl Edwards, last season’s championship runner-up can’t do any better – he missed the cut altogether during a season in which he’s yet to put anything other than a giant goose egg in the Spring Cup win column. How bad is it? If the season ended now, Ford would be assured of their lowest finish in the championship since Dale Earnhardt did no better than 12th back in 1982.

“Everybody is trying hard,” echoed Kenseth and Biffle Sunday. “We just missed it.”

Turns out in this case, what Ford seems to be missing is Kenseth’s leadership, set to depart for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota for 2013. The only former champion on their current roster, his “lame duck” status appears to have affected the focus of the No. 17 team, causing a domino effect that’s rippled through the whole organization. With just one top-5 result in the last eleven races, and a fifth at that (Richmond) it’s clear the team is not flashing the speed shown early in the season – when Kenseth was running for sponsorship and a chance to negotiate for a future in that car.

But his pending departure has been far from the only distraction here. Edwards, while not in the Chase lost crew chief Bob Osborne midsummer to an as-yet-undisclosed health concern. The team has been battling to fund the No. 17, squeaking through the rest of the season with patchwork deals before settling for a potpourri of companies to support incoming rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Edwards himself has been transitioning to a new life, no longer running the Nationwide Series even part-time and (mostly) restricted to running on Sundays.

To their credit, no one wants to use personnel changes at Roush as an excuse. But those types of adjustments have a “filter down” effect, especially when Kenseth has been considered the de facto leader of the program since Mark Martin scaled back and moved elsewhere following the 2006 season. Who’s going to take over that role? One would think Edwards, with all the money and support sent his way through a long-term contract should inherit it. The problem is, when you’ve got a winless streak that extends all the way through Las Vegas, in March of 2011 that makes it harder to garner support within the company. Biffle, who as the “elder statesman” has outperformed everyone at age 42, has longevity and recent success on his side, just not the vocal charisma you need to bring a team together and move it forward.

And so the void continues. Turns out the Biff was also overrated, a 2012 season in which the No. 16 team had something to prove after missing the Chase last year and spent the Spring and early Summer showing the field everything they had. As Jimmie Johnson has proven, time and time again the true contenders can use parts of the regular season as a test session, fine-tuning for when it really counts and when Denny Hamlin, for example stepped up in August and early September the No. 16 car was unable to keep up. Pit problems, always Biffle’s fatal flaw have also reared their ugly head, including Sunday’s loose wheel that ruined any shot for him to end Dover within striking distance of the title.

“That’s frustrating inside the car when you know that happened,” said Biffle, while at the same time trying to deflect blame off his crew. “[But] The wheel wouldn’t be loose if the guy wasn’t trying as hard as he could.”

Effort is nice, but at some point that needs to translate into long-term results – especially with Ford making room for current championship leader Penske Racing in 2013. Someone, somewhere at Roush Fenway eventually needs to step up and show they’ll be able to combat the twenty-something tandem of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano next season for Blue Oval supremacy.

Three races into this Chase, though we’re no clearer to who and how that will be done than we were three months ago. Who knew that Roush Fenway Racing, in the matter of ten months would be going from title contenders to simply struggling to find a sense of direction?

How fleeting success can be in this sport.

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