A couple of weeks ago during the Las Vegas Race, I noted that the Roush Fenway Racing teams – and any Ford outside of the Team Penske tandem of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were seemingly out to lunch. Carl Edwards managed a Top 5 atLVMS largely on the strength of some late race pit strategy, while for most of the race there were no other Fords other than the Nos. 2 and 22 in the Top 17. At Bristol however that all changed with four Fords from three different operations in the Top 5, and Carl Edwards sticking a backflip on a slippery when wet finish line.
While it is a huge sigh of relief for Jimmy Fennig and the No. 99 team, it also tells us a few things, the first of which is short tracks are still the great equalizer with regards to manufacturer or team advantage. Team Penske has been on another level most of this year, while Roush Fenway and RPM have both floundered a bit. Remember it was Richard Petty Motorsports that helped right Roush’s listing ship back in 2010 when they were derailed with corrupt testing and simulator data, that had them chasing their collective tail for the first half of the season. The Team Penske cars are clearly handling better on the faster and flatter tracks, and some of this might be attributed to the new nose piece the Ford Fusions were granted this season.
Might Penske have struck the perfect balance between aero dynamics and front suspension set up, given the new nose height rule, or have the different teams been focusing on different areas in an effort to build a faster Ford? During Speedweeks, Jack Roush had said in interviews that the new nose might not show itself to be an advantage right out of the gate, but later on as the season progressed it would get them up to speed with the Toyotas and Chevrolets that had largely eaten their lunch on the banked downforce tracks.
Was he tempering early season expectations, or foreshadowing a foregone conclusion?
While Edwards has again established himself as the designated hitter withinRFR, the second place finish of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. should serve as confirmation of 2014 being his breakout year. He has proven he can run well when not running into his girlfriend, and the addition of Mike Kelly returning as crew chief from his two Nationwide Series championships, will continue to help him flourish as the season progresses.
The one element that has been a non-factor this year has been Greg Biffle. The senior driver at Roush Fenway Racing, who can claim to have won Roush’s first twoNASCAR championships is in a contract year, but running as if he’s a lame duck. Biffle has one top 10 – an 8th in the Daytona 500, followed by finishes of 17th, 22nd, and 12th.
What is more confusing is the last time Biffle had a top 10 finish at a track over 1.0-mile in length was at Michigan in August of last year – a 9th place run. There was a time not so long ago when the 1.5-mile ovals were once the No. 16’s stomping grounds, but not since June at Michigan last year have they seen victory lane – or a Top 5 at the high speed ovals. Given the number of intermediate tracks on the schedule and the new Chase format where a win gets you in, at what point do they turn things around or is a change made within the team to get them into contention regularly?
Speaking of all things Roush related, Nationwide Series driver Ryan Reed wadded up another one at Bristol this past Saturday. So far he’s wrecked in three of the first four races this year (Daytona being after the flag fell), and one thing The Cat in The Hat bristles at are his cars getting torn up. Seeing as how the majority of the inventory was recycled last year after Travis Pastrana’s experiment didn’t quite pan out, Reed has picked up where Pastrana left off this year and is having a rough go of it as of late. As he exited the car Saturday, he had that hang dog, slumped shoulder look which is not something you want to see in a young driver this early in his career.
However all is not lost. There once was a pair of Roush rookies in similar situations in recent years who were involved in more than their fair share of incidents; David Ragan in 2007 and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2010. David Ragan quickly matured into a solid, stable, and consistent driver winning a pair of plate races to date in the Cup Series, while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s trail of carnage stopped following a heart to heart with the team owner.
Is Reed two-time Nationwide Series Championship material? Not quite yet, but who in their right mind would have saw Stenhouse, Jr. have that potential in the first half of 2010?
Through all of this however, and in the midst of the weekly Kyle and Keselowski show that has come to dominate the middle-tier series is Trevor Bayne, sitting second in points, just one point out of first. Bayne has endured his share of struggles since his 2011 Daytona 500 triumph. From what was originally believed to be Lyme’s Disease to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, Bayne has soldiered on, kept his head held high, and gone about his business without complaint or conflict.
A third place at Daytona, followed by a seventh and a pair of eight place runs might not have him doing burnouts into the wall or hanging halfway out of the car with the wheel in his hand, but they are building early season momentum for a run at the Championship which so far looks very attainable. Hard to believe becoming the youngest Daytona 500 winner ever would prove to be a sponsorship and career challenge, but as the pilot of the flagship No. 6, 2014 could be his year to re-establish his career and future in the sport.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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