Did You Notice? … Roush Fenway Racing drivers are thriving… elsewhere? On the heels of the Cup program missing its first Chase since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff format in 2004 is the awkward reality their team just isn’t very good. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle have combined for just three top-5 finishes this year, a total that’s smaller than the four wins accumulated by Chase top seeds Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
What’s more troubling for one of the sport’s storied programs is how quickly its former drivers have found success elsewhere. Take a look at how the last two to leave the team, Kenseth and Carl Edwards compare to their replacements since leaving RFR….
Kenseth after RFR: 11 wins, 35 top-5 finishes, 58 top 10s with Joe Gibbs Racing (2013-present)
Kenseth in final year (2012) with RFR (No. 17): 3 wins, 13 top-5 finishes, 19 top 10s, 5th in points
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in No. 17 car (2013-present): 0 wins, 3 top-5 finishes, 9 top 10s, no Chase appearances
Edwards after RFR: 2 wins, 3 top-5 finishes, 9 top 10s with Joe Gibbs Racing (2015)
Edwards in final year (2014) with RFR (No. 99): 2 wins, 7 top-5 finishes, 14 top 10s, 9th in points
Bayne in first year replacing Edwards (No. 6): 0 wins, 0 top-5 finishes, 2 top 10s, 29th in driver points
As you can see, the gap between the superstars and their replacements suggest that at least some small part of the problem has to be in the driver’s seat. So will Roush be compelled to make a change? Stenhouse is signed through ’16 but appears to be the most expendable of all drivers at this point; former RFR young gun David Ragan is available on the market to replace him. Strong options in-house like Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Chris Buescher could also move up with proper sponsorship. Bayne, meanwhile seems like he deserves another year and crew chief Bob Osborne is still relearning the weekly grind atop the pit box.
Of course, RFR could still stick with the status quo. But at this point, every internal personnel shift they could make has been done; mechanics are tired of getting threatened, shifted and released. It’s clear drivers like Stenhouse are the problem and a 10-race ticking clock has begun before major changes will reign down on the team going forward.
Did You Notice? … 5 of the sixteen drivers in this year’s Chase enter it without a victory? That leaves us a 31 percent chance at the moment the Cup Series could have a winless champion. Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer have all qualified despite totaling 13 top-5 finishes this season between them. Kevin Harvick, by comparison, has 18 in the first 26 events of the season.
The numbers aren’t good for those worried we’re going to have another 2014 Newman-like incident, one where a driver makes the Final Four at Homestead through consistency and not first-place finishes. What’s troubling is within that group there are drivers like Menard, a first-time Chaser who’s led one total lap all year and hasn’t won a race since the Brickyard 400 in 2011. Could you imagine a champion who’s led fewer laps than Brett Moffitt, Alex Bowman and Josh Wise? Menard is the least likely to take home the big trophy, but he’s still got a chance to do so nonetheless.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off….
- Wal-Mart has emerged as a one-race sponsor for Sam Hornish, Jr. and the No. 9 Ford this weekend. It’s always been confusing why the country’s largest discount department store has never made an investment in NASCAR beyond dipping its toe in a few times, most notably sponsoring Bill Elliott at Daytona a few years back. For Hornish, rumored to be on the way out in favor of Ragan or even Bowyer in 2016 it could be a last-ditch effort to impress. The biggest obstacle for the former open-wheeler in keeping his job has been attracting sponsorship support; there’s no better way to change that than by a top-5 run for a company that boasts one of the deepest pockets in America.
- It’s not surprising the Richmond race, considering its ho-hum competition and minimal playoff storylines drew a 1.7 Nielsen rating, down a whopping 37 percent from last year. But what’s interesting is how badly college football beat it, in particular the 5.0 rating scored by ABC’s Saturday night primetime broadcast. Even ESPN, putting out a 1.9 rating for LSU/Mississippi State outgunned NASCAR coverage. With that type of competition on tap the rest of the season, you wonder how low the bar could be set with so many Chase races still remaining on the harder-to-find-on-cable NBC Sports Network.
- As if it’s not tough enough for NASCAR to draw fans to Chicagoland, the city’s NFL team has a home game Sunday. Despite a history of poor play as of late, the Bears will draw a sold out crowd against the Arizona Cardinals while at least a few NASCAR fans for the region will switch their allegiance to Soldier Field. It’s yet another reason why the playoff opener shouldn’t be held in a metropolitan area that not only doesn’t care about the sport but holds its marquee race on one of the worst tracks to pass in America.