Jack Roush sighed. Sitting in the Homestead-Miami Speedway Media Center, conducting a post-victory interview session with race winner Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Edwards was a mixed blessing for Roush.
On the one hand, to see Edwards end the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with consecutive victories in his No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford, to see the team win three of 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and to see RFR drivers Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle finish fourth through sixth in points were all items that gave Roush great satisfaction and personal pride after a difficult start to the 2010 season. And that was especially true given that Roush somehow had cheated death yet again, surviving a second airplane crash, this one during an experimental aircraft show at Oshkosh, Wis., in July.
Through it all, though, Roush – and every other team owner, driver and crew chief in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage — watched helplessly as Jimmie Johnson scored his record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, a mark that for the first 60 years of NASCAR history wasn't so much unreachable as it was unfathomable.
Roush, a man who's seen enough go wrong in his long career to be cautious to the point of being pessimistic, had another reason to fret about the team's 2011 prospects: Despite the fact that the current generation NASCAR Sprint Cup cars look very similar year to year, under the skin, technological evolution occurs at a breakneck pace. And what a team accomplishes one year means jack the next. No one knows that better than Jack.
So while he was excited about how 2010 ended, 2011 is very much an open question.
“Last year as we made our plans for 2010, we dared to be great as it related to our simulations and we didn't get it done right – and that put us behind this year for six months before we got it fixed and then got the confidence in it,” says Roush. “But we have got to tear up as all of the teams do over the winter this year to try to make things better, otherwise we'll get left behind.”
If you don't believe it, just take a look at Roush's arch-rival, Hendrick Motorsports. In 2009, Hendrick drivers swept the top three positions in the Sprint Cup point standings. As a team, they posted 13 victories, 48 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes. Yes, Johnson, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, won another championship in 2010, but the team's overall numbers were way down: six victories – all by Johnson – 38 top fives and 59 top 10s. The reason? They fell behind technologically after NASCAR switched from a rear wing to a rear spoiler after the first five races of the season.
“We built cars and built some of our packages around that wing and when we went to spoiler we were behind, we were all behind,” says team owner Rick Hendrick. “None of the cars ran like they should. You don't want to give up on something new that you've got. You try to keep running it and finally you have to back up to what you had maybe six or eight months ago. Then you're way behind.”In the case of the Roush Fenway operation, the team's problems primarily were with its computer simulation software. When Richard Petty Motorsports switched over from Dodge to Ford prior to the start of the 2010 season, they used different simulation software than RFR did. Shockingly, it was actually better than what Roush had. Specifically, Roush's software was not providing accurate predictions of how tires would behave, which was causing the team to be off in its setups. The Roush cars would unload slow and run slow all weekend, making the first half of the season a nightmare for the organization. In the first 18 races of the 36-race 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, Biffle, Edwards, Kenseth and David Ragan combined for zero victories and just seven top-five finishes in a combined 72 starts.
At times the performance of the Roush Fenway Fords was embarrassing. In June, the teams traveled to Michigan International Speedway, a track where RFR Fords had dominated in recent years with 11 race victories overall. But it was Kasey Kahne who finished second in an RPM Ford, while Biffle's ninth-place run was the sole top-10 for Roush's outfit.
But once the Roush organization began to adopt what RPM learned about front-end suspension geometry, things quickly and dramatically turned around. In the second half of the year, which started with race No. 19 at Chicagoland, the Roush drivers collected four race victories and 17 top fives. Better yet, each of the four drivers improved his points position – some dramatically – in the second half of the season, with Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle finishing the year fourth through sixth, respectively, while Ragan lagged behind in 24th.
In the Chicagoland race, Edwards finished second, which was his best to that point of the season, and Biffle had a fast car before losing an engine. The following race, Biffle was third at the Brickyard 400, then won at Pocono right after that. From then on, it was all good, as Biffle would win again at Kansas Speedway and Edwards would close the season out in victory lane at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead.
“If you would have told me, 10 races into the season that this is how we were going to wrap this thing up, I would not have believed you,” said Edwards. “This is beyond the comeback that I expected and it's really beyond what I hoped for. This is a very good finish to the season.”And that could bode well for the eminently talented Edwards, who in 2010 grew his fan base and enhanced his reputation by going into the grandstands and high-fiving race fans after winning races. Among the Roush drivers in the Chase era, the Missouri native has the most race victories, 18, to Biffle's 15 and 11 for Kenseth. Edwards's 18 first-place finishes tied him for fourth overall since 2004, behind only Johnson (47), Tony Stewart (22) and Kyle Busch (19).
But as Hendrick and Roush both learned the hard way in 2010, there is little carryover year to year in the Sprint Cup Series. In 2011, the Ford and Dodge teams will all have a new upper nose, while all four manufacturers will have new and more attractive lower nose sections, with no more of the ungainly splitter braces.
And Roush Fenway probably can't count on as much help from RPM in 2011 as they got in 2010. Kahne and his talented crew chief Kenny Francis have moved on to greener pastures at Red Bull Toyota, while RPM has shed 75 employees and two of its four teams as it goes through yet another ownership change with an uncertain future. “Jack's cars are fastest when there's another competitive Ford team,” a Ford Racing official says. “He does better with in-house competition.”
Whoever figures out the nuances of the new nose will have a distinct advantage at the start of 2011, just as Joe Gibbs Racing did when NASCAR switched from wing to spoiler in 2010. And make no mistake about it, in this day and age, NASCAR Sprint Cup races are won by engineers – the brilliant and highly educated nerds who run the seven-post machines and sift through wind tunnel data – as much or more as they are by the men who drive the racecars.
How else could one explain how Edwards won nine races in 2008, then went 0 for 70 in 2009 and the first 34 races of '10, before ending last season with dominating victories? Get the car right and the driver can do his job. Otherwise, he's screwed. It's really not a whole lot more complicated than that.
For Edwards, finally dethroning Johnson in 2011 is Job No. 1.
“How do we beat those guys? I believe that our slope, our game is a little steeper than theirs right now,” says Edwards of Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports squad. “The question is, can we keep that going? We have been better at times: We've proven that. Other people have been better at times. But on average, the No. 48 team has just been better than everyone else.
“I look at what we have; I look at the two cars sitting next to one another and I understand that those cars are made of shocks, springs, the chassis, the body, the engine… I look at all those parameters and where we are headed, and I feel like we are making really good progress.
“So with that being said, we just have to hope that we can continue that. How do we stack up compared to them? I still feel like we are on more of an upswing than we were in 2008.”
We'll all know soon enough if he's right or not.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.