Did You Notice?… One of the more underreported stories of Speedweeks, thus far is not who’s sitting in the front row but who just missed out. Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, third and fourth-best in Sunday’s qualifying for the 56th Daytona 500 look to have the speed to contend for Victory Lane. Quietly, Roush Fenway Racing has won two out of the last five editions of the Great American Race; add in Trevor Bayne, from the satellite Wood Brothers operation and you can arguably bump that number up to three.
Roush Fenway Racing has plenty to prove this season, and Carl Edwards was one of the team’s drivers that posted a lap almost good enough for the pole for the Daytona 500.
Perhaps no big team enters the season under more pressure than the RFR group. Two of its three Cup drivers – Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle – are entering the final year of their contracts. The third, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has yet to prove himself, earning just three top-10 finishes this year and enters 2014 with both patchwork sponsorship and a new crew chief. While Biffle claims a long-term contract is close, for both he and sponsor 3M (whose contract is also up) it’s not inconceivable to think at least one of these three drivers is on the way out.
Perhaps the bigger problem, though for this program is who’s on the way up. RFR’s driver development, once the best in the business has hit a wall in recent seasons. Their truck program is defunct; the Nationwide Series gamble on rally driver Travis Pastrana, a multi-million dollar experiment ended with him bailing on NASCAR last season. Trevor Bayne, parked in neutral since his 2011 Daytona 500 victory has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; his limited schedule with the Wood Brothers, in Cup has failed to attract more sponsors. Although the team will field three full-time Nationwide cars this season, adding Ryan Reed and Chris Buescher to the mix there’s no guarantee any of those guys work out.
Add it all up, mix in a little competition from Penske Racing within the Blue Oval crowd and what you get is a crucial year for Jack Roush’s once-thriving organization. Getting off to a fast start means more; Daytona sets the tone for an early-season schedule that favors them. (Edwards won Phoenix last February, while RFR seemingly wins Las Vegas every other season). Playing second fiddle, as they did to the Penske cars for much of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited won’t be enough. They need to do better.
Which means it’s time for Biffle, Edwards, and Stenhouse to step to the plate. Only one, Biffle, has won at a plate track in Cup, and that was a fuel mileage affair (Daytona, July, way back in 2003). But all three have been in contention, with Biffle quietly reaching the podium in two of the last four Daytona 500s. Stenhouse, in just his second Cup season earned his best career finish at Talladega last Fall (third).
There’s so many other stories to focus on this week, it’s easy for RFR to fall under the radar. But lately, with the exception of Jimmie Johnson last season that’s exactly the type of unexpected story we’ve seen emerge in the Great American Race. So keep an eye on RFR, especially down the stretch on Sunday and especially if you’re looking for a dark horse.
Did You Notice?… The qualifying speeds at the season-opening race, supposedly the great equalizer with restrictor plates still favored the big teams. The top 10 speeds went to Richard Childress Racing (three cars), Roush Fenway (three), Hendrick Motorsports (two), and one apiece for Penske Racing and single-car / RCR satellite Furniture Row Racing. The only other single-car operation in the top 25 was Casey Mears (13th); Brian Scott (12th), driving a fourth RCR machine and Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Michael Annett (18th) were the only other mild surprises.
I point this phenomenon out because, for the first time in many years NASCAR’s car count looks extremely healthy. There’s 44 full-time teams, plus a handful of part-timers intent on running the distance this season. But along with those numbers comes a clear-cut line between rich and poor; the middle class in Cup racing is all but eliminated. And if teams like Front Row Motorsports, BK Racing, etc. can’t come within a whisker of their rivals at Daytona, what is it going to be like at Phoenix? Las Vegas? You have to sit there thinking even the new playoff format, where taking major risks for wins is openly encouraged won’t help them get on the radar screen. It’s hard to take that fuel mileage gamble, of course when you’re already four laps down…
That makes it hard to believe that teams like BK are sustainable over the long-term. You can only run 35th, every week before financially people start thinking of bailing. In a year with so much change, I find it ironic that perhaps the one thing that does need to shift – Sprint Cup’s entrenched power structure at the top – appears incapable of being toppled, even at the restrictor plate tracks.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
– NASCAR has done its best to keep Daytona in the news between Sunday and Wednesday. The Battle of the Beach races are designed to keep fans engaged. But after weak crowds on the weekend, minimizing attendance for the minor league races you wonder how much longer this experiment’s going to last. Why not condense the whole schedule somewhat, like the Indy 500 to make sure there’s less “dead time?” At the very least, why not consider putting the Sprint Unlimited back on Sunday… either before Cup Series qualifying or right after it. When televised on FOX (the big channel), it was the exhibition race that consistently earned twice the ratings one-car qualifying ever would. Banishing that to FOX Sports 1, in favor of hyping up a long, three-hour session of pole runs was confusing at best, a poor decision at worst.
Pole day isn’t bubble day for Indy… only 2 of the 43 spots get locked in the field. With so much movement within plate races anyway, where you start is irrelevant and no underdog in danger of missing the event will take the pole. The whole situation could use a revamp.
– Can someone explain to me why NASCAR forces teams who blow engines before Thursday’s qualifying races to start at the rear of the 500 field? Speedweeks is a special case, with so many more practice sessions and a 150-mile event before the big race. You’d think they would have the rule tweaked so that, at the very least you don’t get penalized until you blow an engine after the Duels.
One could argue, especially in Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick’s cases they have absolutely no reason to race in the Duels. They’re in the 500 anyway, barring a major catastrophe and the starting position they’re trying to earn will be totally irrelevant. This NASCAR rule is one that makes absolutely no sense.
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