The introduction of a new car at Texas could be a step in the right direction.
LOS ANGELES – For those who observed the glory days of Roush Fenway Racing, the organization’s recent struggles are curious, to say the least.
Jack Roush once had five teams that were thriving. In 2005 each one of his Cup drivers qualified for the 10 driver Chase – a feat that has never been equaled. And that was after RFR won the 2003 Cup title with Matt Kenseth and the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch.
One decade later, Greg Biffle is the last driver standing on the Roush roster. Gone is Mark Martin who carried the flagship No. 6 Ford to 35 of the company’s 135 Cup wins. Busch was recruited by Roger Penske in 2006. Kenseth jumped ship to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 and Carl Edwards followed suit after last year.
"Dying a slow death"
Biffle won a truck and XFINITY Series title when Roush vehicles were capable of winning on any given Sunday. But last weekend, when the RFR team unloaded at Auto Club Speedway, a track were Biffle had won one Cup race and three XFINITY Series events at Fontana, the veteran was beyond frustrated after qualifying 29th on Friday. When neither he nor his teammates made it past the first round, Biffle called the company’s performance “unacceptable”.
We need to start showing up for the weekend closer to where we need to be.
“We’re dying a slow death,” Biffle said. “We need to start showing up for the weekend closer to where we need to be.”
When asked to clarify his statement under calmer conditions on Sunday Biffle, did his best to temper the negative nature if his Friday comments.
“It’s difficult as a competitor to show up at a place you’ve won twice at and come off the truck 32nd in speed,” Biffle said. “This is difficult. I didn’t mean we were dying a slow death. You want to unload off the truck and be 10th, or you want to unload off the truck and be in the top 10 or top 15. You take Las Vegas for instance. I like to use Las Vegas because last year we finished three laps down there and didn’t have any speed and the car was undriveable. We go back to Las Vegas and we were fairly competitive, ran up in the top 10 for part of the race and ended up with a decent finish and we were really excited about that.
“We come here with guns blazing, ready to go, unload off the truck and we just missed it. I was really frustrated about that, because I was running fourth here last year and I knew with that car we’re not running fourth right now. Granted, we got it much better (Saturday). We were 16th and 14th in the final practice on speed, so we got it better, but you feel crushed when you’ve worked so hard, and everybody has put in so much effort into it, the guys at the shop and the aero department and engineering and our new management and new engineer.
“To come here and come off the truck with that kind of speed really crushed us, and I think that’s what I meant. That was a blow to us that we ended up in that position off of the truck.”
Behind the wheel
For Biffle, Friday marked the first time this season he had finished outside of the top 20 in qualifying. His best finish this season was 10th in the Daytona 500, followed by a 14th-place result at Las Vegas. When reviewing the overall performance of the three Roush drivers, Biffle boasts the only top 10.
Despite winning two NXS titles before earning a full-time Cup ride, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has never lived up to expectations. Once considered the heir apparent to mentor Tony Stewart’s ride, today Stenhouse is more often recognized as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend—or the guy with the burgeoning mullet.
In 81 Cup starts, the 27-year-old racer has one pole, two top fives and eight top-10 finishes. Where racers such as Kenseth and Edwards could overcome the years of Roush mediocrity, Stenhouse has failed to do so entering his third season on the Cup tour. He is currently 26th in the point standings.
For Trevor Bayne, success came early – in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. In just his second start on the Cup tour, Bayne, who had just turned 20, won the 2011 Daytona 500. Although Bayne only competed on a part-time basis prior to this season that was his last top-five finish in 63 career starts. What’s disturbing about Bayne over the last five seasons is his inability to improve. In 2012, Bayne posted a career-high average finish of 17.7.
Granted, it’s difficult to gain momentum when running less than half the races, but after his first five races with Roush – a company where he’s been since October 2010 – Bayne’s best effort was 19th at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Overall, under the direction of veteran crew chief Bob Osborne, Bayne’s average finish is 26.8.
Like his former teammates Kenseth and Edwards, Biffle could overcome marginally competitive cars in the past. But at 45 and after signing last year what will likely be his final Cup contract, Biffle’s only incentive is pride.
Walk the walk...
As the veteran driver of the stable, Biffle is the only Roush driver with the gravitas to make the type of acerbic remark he did on Friday. But given the hole the Sprint Cup program is in at this time his words are unlikely to elicit the response he was hoping for in the short term.
We unloaded off the truck without the speed in the cars that we’d like to have and that manifested in a lackluster performance for qualifying.
“I have not heard his comments nor do I know when he said it, for sure,” Roush told Motorsport.com. “He had an interview after qualifying – and he was frustrated after qualifying as we all were. But there’s hope. This race track we only come to once a year. It gets rougher by the year, more worn out by the year. Goodyear brought a new tire to it. We had a new aero platform and we had a new engine.
“So we unloaded off the truck without the speed in the cars that we’d like to have and that manifested in a lackluster performance for qualifying.”
Hope for the future
And if Biffle was disgusted in qualifying, one can only imagine his mood after RFR NXS driver Chris Buescher passed the No. 16 Ford before the halfway point of the Auto Club 400.
Buescher, 22, who was making his debut subbing in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, finished 20th ahead of Biffle and Bayne. Stenhouse finished 15th. To Stenhouse’s credit, it’s his second top 15 finish in as many races with first-time crew chief Nick Sandler. At least Stenhouse is 26th in the point standings. He finished 27th last year.
If there’s a bright side to Roush Fenway Racing, it would be on the XFINITY side of the garage where Buescher, Ryan Reed and Darrell Wallace Jr. are second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the point standings. All three drivers are extremely hungry and have something to prove. Buescher has three top fives in the first five races. Reed kicked off the year with a win at Daytona and “Bubba” proved he could battle with Kevin Harvick on Saturday until he slapped the wall. Still, there’s no reason why these drivers can’t add to Roush’s stout record of four titles and 134 wins in the NXS.
Getting up to speed
Clearly, the Generation 6 car, which was introduced in 2013, has thrown RFR for a loop. Since the new Fusions rolled out, RFR has posted just five victories in 77 races. While the organization has plans to unveil its latest take on the car next month at Texas Motor Speedway, the ever pragmatic Roush knows it won’t solve all of his company’s ills.
The Texas car I’m hopeful for. It’s not a panacea.
“In the last three years, we’ve had three iterations of new car and every one is a small improvement is somethings that are known to be significant,” Roush said. “We’re past coiled-bound front springs for the first time which was an advantage we had for a while. We’re past the skewed rear axle which you can have for a while until everyone else figures it out.
“NASCAR has the rules tightened up so much and the cars are so similar that it’s a matter of picking the right aero platform in terms of balance of front to rear. It’s a matter of picking the right springs for the right chassis platform for the ride for the roughness of the track. And it takes a good simulation to do that. There’s more left in the decisions we make about the car than there is room for improvement to make the car better.
“The Texas car I’m hopeful for. It’s not a panacea. It won’t offset the good judgments of the car that we got for springs, bars and shocks. It won’t require something different than the car we’ve got.”
The testing ban has hurt RFR more than a lot teams simply due to the inability verify the simulation. It’s not the first time Roush has ventured down a path where it was difficult to return. And despite talk of a “One Ford”, Team Penske, which has succeeded Roush in the Blue Oval’s pecking order, handles its simulation in house while RFR relies primarily on the manufacturer.
Biffle remains cautiously optimistic regarding the new car which he described as “a collaborative effort through our organization”. And it couldn’t come at a better time for Biffle considering he’s never scored a top five at Martinsville Speedway – the next stop on the Cup tour. Following the first weekend off in the season, Biffle should be refreshed and ready to attack Texas a track were he has two victories, one pole, eight top fives and 13 top 10 finishes in 22 starts.
This car is our next version of what it needs to be or where we feel like we need to go.
“We’ve been working on that car since the end of last season and through the winter,” Biffle said. “We’ve already had one test with it at Charlotte and I know there weren’t fireworks going off after the Charlotte test, but still this car is our next version of what it needs to be or where we feel like we need to go.
“So I’m excited to get to Texas and get driving this car, so we can start working on it. Certainly, the first time you have it out of the shop and on the race track you may not have everything right on it, so with three or five of us, or however many we’re gonna have at Texas over the next couple of intermediate tracks hopefully we can dial that thing in.”
Just the first step
Even with the launch of Roush’s new car, one insider familiar with RFR’s struggles believes the ship won’t be righted before the Chase. RFR’s Sprint Cup team manager Kevin Kidd doesn’t disagree with that assessment.
Kidd, who was hired by Roush from Joe Gibbs Racing last year, says “there are no sacred cows in the building”. He is looking at every area of the program from chassis to aero to personnel to determine where the weak links lie.
We’re trying to change the culture of Roush Fenway Racing, how we’ve done business in the past and how we’ll do business in the future.
“Rome was not built in a day and we’re in the process of building Rome back up,” Kidd told Motorsport.com. “It’s going to take time. That’s the simple truth. I had some perspective on it this week like when you look at other organizations that are down and trying to build back up – Ganassi comes to mind. Penske, maybe less so but maybe from a few year back. It’s a solid two to three year process of trying to get back to full form and ultimate competitive level. I’ll stop short of saying it will take two to three years, but it’s going to take time.
“One car debuted on one weekend is not going to be the answer to of our problems. When you look at where we’re trying to go with this, we’re trying to change the culture of Roush Fenway Racing, how we’ve done business in the past and how we’ll do business in the future. Ultimately, that change, more so than nuts and bolts of race cars, but the change of our working philosophies, that’s what will get us back to a competitive level – and that takes time.”