Kasey Kahne 'optimistic' about weekend.
Not so long ago, Roush Fenway Racing was a beast. Now, the burden is squarely on the shoulders of Greg Biffle to put some teeth back in RFR's bite.
"We’ve worked really hard for the last month and have gained tremendously on it, so I look forward to kind of carrying the flag and leading this organization," said Biffle, before failing to get out of the first round of knockout qualifying at Pocono Raceway on Friday.
That signals a potential problem for RFR, not just for Sunday's GoBowling.com 400, but looking down the road.
Matt Kenseth is long gone, in his second season as a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contender for Joe Gibbs Racing. Carl Edwards won’t be back in 2015. And Biffle, the self-proclaimed "anchor" of the ship has been a shadow of himself for some time.
Biffle, 44, once won six Cup races in a season. But that was back in 2005 when he finished second in the Sprint Cup standings and Jack Roush was riding high in the saddle with a stable that included Mark Martin and young studs like Kenseth and Edwards.
2014 a struggle
True, Biffle is a proven winner with 19 Cup victories, but he has only three since 2010. And 2014 has been a real struggle. Biffle led 721 laps last season (he led 1,322 in 2005). He’s led only 98 laps this year.
This weekend's qualifying effort was emblematic of Biffle’s mediocre performance. He wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t quite good enough, getting bumped from advancing to the second round by teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In Saturday's Happy Hour practice, Biffle was 20th on the speed charts, more than two mph slower than the Team Penske Ford of pace-setter Brad Keselowski.
Roush Fenway is putting a lot of stock in Stenhouse, 26, and Trevor Bayne, 23, who will compose two-thirds of its Sprint Cup lineup in 2015.
But Stenhouse, a former NASCAR Nationwide Series champ, has just two top-fives in 61 Cup starts. His lone top five this season is a fourth at Bristol Motor Speedway in the fourth race of the season.
Bayne’s victory for Wood Brothers in the 2011 Daytona 500 is increasingly looking like a fluke. In 52 Sprint Cup starts since, Bayne has yet to finish higher than eighth.
That leaves Biffle, who says he passed on opportunities to drive elsewhere to sign a three-year deal to remain at Roush Fenway.
“I’ve won over 55 (national series) races driving there – 19 Cup wins – and I just felt like we can get this thing turned around,” Biffle said. “I’m ready to spend more time at the shop and try and help (Roush Fenway) get faster."
Carrying a flag is one thing. Making that a checkered flag is another matter. Biffle thought he really had some speed prior to Friday’s qualifying – the best car he’d had in weeks – but still came up short.
Makes a committment
"I made that commitment to stay and it’s been a tough eight weeks since then," said Biffle, whose 13th at The Brickyard was his best finish in the last four races. “I think it’s pretty obvious for all of us that this has probably been one of our tougher seasons. None of us are happy right now, but we’re getting a heck of a lot better.
"We learned a significant amount and went to Indy and it didn’t really pan out. We came back and spent half a day at the shop on Monday in meetings looking over our cars and understanding a little bit more about maybe what we’re missing. I know we haven’t won any races ... but I feel like we’re in a much, much better situation going into these next six races (leading into the Chase)."
One of Roush Fenway’s most significant improvements might have come off the track, with its back-to-the-future signing of Mark Martin this week. Martin, 55 and the winner of 40 Cup races, will serve as a driving coach and could be just the voice Stenhouse and Bayne need to have in their ears.
“I think he’s gonna look like a hero right now,” Biffle predicted. “We’re really gonna turn our competition around from here to the end of the season and that could have Mark’s name on it. He can still bring knowledge and information and I think an outside perspective can help us continue to try to focus on areas we need work in.”
Like Biffle, Kasey Kahne is winless, owns two top-five finishes this season, but is in solid position to make the Chase on points.
Unlike Biffle, Kahne was a threat at Indianapolis, leading a race-high 70 laps and finishing sixth in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. It was his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races.
“I think it was good for me to lead laps. We hadn’t done a whole lot of that this season,” says Kahne, the defending champ in the GoBowling.com 400. “It was the first time (this) season we have put a whole race together.
“We got some confidence out of it. Hopefully we can carry that into this weekend. I think our cars are really good here.”
Hendrick has produced the last four Cup winners at Pocono with Jeff Gordon (2012), Jimmie Johnson and Kahne (2013) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in this June’s 400 miler.
Keeping it real
After posting his 90th career Sprint Cup victory last week, it might be natural for Gordon to begin thinking about reaching 100.
“I just hope we can get to 91,” Gordon chuckled. “You can’t think about 100 until you get to 99 the last time I checked. I’m pretty excited to be at 90."
Gordon, who leads all drivers with six victories at Pocono Raceway, will celebrate his 43rd birthday on Monday and is not without physical challenges, primarily from back pain which forced him to miss a practice at Charlotte in May.
“I don’t think my back is ever going to be the same after what happened at Charlotte,” he said. “I have to be much more careful and do more stretching. Is it going to flare up again? It could. I’m trying to be more cautious with the things that contribute to that. But yeah, it’s not great, that’s for sure.”
Gordon was second-fastest in Saturday's Happy Hour, followed by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt was fifth-fastest despite a recurring vibration and pole-sitter Kyle Larson was sixth-fastest.
Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service