Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dover Post-Practice Review: Roush Drivers Should Give Kyle a Run For His Money

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
The entire NASCAR world has been wondering what has happened to the Roush-Fenway Fords the last season and a half. There has been no definitive explanation for the demise of one a NASCAR’s most competitive teams over the last two decades, but based on the performances during practices leading up to this Sunday’s Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway, there are signs that the team’s 14 race losing streak could come to an end.
All four Roush-Fenway cars collectively looked the best they have in any practice session this season. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and David Ragan all have the look of a winner based on their Saturday performance. When mixing in whatever they did to get faster this week along with the teams overall past history at the Monster-Mile of Dover, they look like the perfect candidates to beat out this weeks top rated drivers of Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
In 2008, Roush-Fenway Racing was on top of the NASCAR world winning nine races with Edwards and two more with Biffle. Edwards almost captured car owner Jack Roush’s third NASCAR Sprint Cup title that year having an unbelievable run in the final 10 race chase by wining three races and finishing in the top-4 in eight of the 10 races -- losing the championship to Jimmie Johnson who, hard to believe, was actually better over those final 10 races.
With such a great run in 2008, it was only natural to believe that Roush-Fenway would be the team to beat in 2009 with Edwards taking the lead as the one to stop Johnson’s quest for an unprecedented four straight championships. Kenseth came right out the gate by winning Jack Roush’s only Daytona 500 ever and followed it up with a win the very next week at California. The writing was on the wall for all to take notice of, the Roushketeers meant business in 2009, but that was a very short lived bulletin.
Now, here we are after 11 races completed in the 2010 campaign and we still have yet to see a Roush-Fenway driver win. They have been competitive, but haven’t been close to sniffing a win in 41 non-restrictor plate races since the Kenseth California win. Former teammate Jamie McMurray won the restrictor-plate race at Talladega last season, but it’s a type of racing set-up that isn’t transferable to the 32 other races on a given season. The core races for Roush drivers have always been the down-force tracks, and that is where they have really lost their swagger. 
Kenseth has now gone 45 races without a win, Biffle has gone 56 race since his last win, Edwards 47 races, and Ragan has never won.
Edwards fall off from winning nine races in one season to not winning any the next has never happened in NASCAR history with a driver starting the same amount of races each year, and he continues to rack up more winless races to the record. 
The team's strength this week seems to correlate with some tinkering and notes taken from the March Bristol race where Biffle finished fourth, Kenseth fifth, and Edwards sixth. Not so coincidentally, each of the chassis’ those three drivers used at Bristol are being used this week at Dover.
Though Dover is twice the length of Bristol, the high banked concrete surface of each has a lot of data transferable from one to the other. Each of Roush-Fenway’s top three drivers have had success on the two tracks. At Dover, the three have combined to win four times within the last five seasons. Roush also won four other times as an owner with Mark Martin driving.
During Saturday’s two practices, Edwards had the best combined average speeds among all Cup drivers. On single lap times, he was 10th and third fastest. Biffle came in with the sixth and 10th best times, while Ragan was second and ninth. Kenseth’s practice times are never a true reflection of what he will actually run like on race day, but he did get progressively better and had very fast average speeds during happy hour.
The driver all the Roush-Fenway drivers will have to take down -- who looks better than everyone this week -- is Kyle Busch. The last time Busch was fastest during happy hour was at Richmond and it translated into a win. This is the first time Busch has looked this good in all three practice sessions and qualifying leading to a race this season. Over his career, he’s done very well at Dover which includes a win and four other top-five finishes in 10 starts.
The Joe Gibbs dominance doesn’t stop with Busch either. Denny Hamlin had the second fastest times during happy hour giving a solid indicator that he could be on his way to win number four on the short season. This week, Hamlin has brought a chassis that finished second last year at both Texas and New Hampshire. The only thing that drops his rating this week is his past Dover history in which he’s finished 36th or worse in four of his last five starts.                     
Jimmie Johnson started the weekend out almost in the same fashion like he did at Bristol where he dominated just about every statistical phase. He was fastest in the first two practice sessions, but dropped to 16th during happy hour. Despite the slide in single lap times, Johnson still produced some of the best average lap times which is a great indicator of how good he’ll be during long runs.
The Bristol correlation to Dover is relative, but it took Johnson until this season to capture his first Bristol win after winning five times at Dover, including a sweep of last season.
On the same note is Kurt Busch, except backwards. Busch has five career Bristol wins, but none at Dover. Last season Busch made huge strides in his search for a Dover win by finishing fifth in both races -- a total that doubled his career top-fives there. His third-place finish at Bristol in March lends reason to believe he’ll be a contender this week. His practice times were just outside the top-10 Saturday, but mirror almost exactly what he did during Bristol practices.
Another driver that fits the Dover-Bristol connection is Tony Stewart. Stewart finished second in this race last season and did the same at Bristol this year. As always, Stewart’s practice times were nothing to be desired and if basing a selection entirely on practice, he wouldn’t crack a top-20 rating. However, if looking at Bristol, Stewart was worse at practice there than he was Saturday at Dover, yet still finished second. Though he’s a two-time Dover winner, Stewart is mired in a six race streak of finishing outside the top-15. Don’t expect that trend to continue this week as he’ll likely be contending for the win with 50 laps to go.
Clint Bowyer has won at Dover in the Nationwide series, but has never finished better than eighth in the Cup series. Despite no top-five finishes, Bowyer still has a quality 14.4 average finish at Dover, good enough for eighth best among active drivers. Between the three practice sessions ran, Bowyer never finished slower than fifth which makes him one to take notice of.
Kasey Kahne hasn’t been good anywhere but the high-banked 1.5-mile tracks this year, but did make a case for his team this week with good practice sessions. In the first two sessions, Kahne didn’t finish outside the top-five. During happy hour, Kahne only had the 17th quickest lap, but was fastest overall in average speeds.
Jeff Gordon didn’t do anything in practice to make anyone believe this will be the race that he ends his losing streak at 40 on his sponsors home-town track. He is a four-time winner at Dover, but the last came in this race back in 2001.
Martin Truex Jr is sitting on the pole this week and had good practices which gives an indication that he could be ready to win again at what is essentially his home track. He won this race in 2007 and is currently sitting a very surprising, and respectable, 13th in points.
Read More Here, Including the Final Driver Ratings for Dover    

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