Saturday, August 14, 2010

Biffle's Got The Goods To Ease Roush's Pain at Michigan This Week

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

It had been a tough year for Roush-Fenway Racing’s Fords leading up to the Brickyard 400 as the team and manufacturer were mired in a season long winless streak. Ford hadn’t seen a drought like that in NASCAR since their 1977 campaign. Owner Jack Roush was confounded by the lack of production from his cars that hadn’t won on his type of track - the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals - since the second race of the 2009 season.

It was just 2008 that Roush saw two of his cars finish second and third in points combining to win 11 of the 36 races. Carl Edwards had won nine races that season and finished within the top-four in eight of the chase races that included three wins. Had it not been for Jimmie Johnson’s consistent dominance throughout the chase -- along with two poor finishes by Edwards -- Roush would have surely had his third championship as an owner.

During this years Brickyard 400, and the practices leading up to the race, the Roush cars starting showing more horsepower. Greg Biffle led 38 laps and finished third with Edwards coming in seventh. It was a sign that the program was on the upswing and that they were finally close to getting near NASCAR’s best horsepower producing teams of Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress and Earnhardt. Everyone in the Roush-Fenway organization was excited that the they had finally turned the corner and then two days later, the happiness quickly turned to concerned sadness.

On Tuesday, July 27, Jack Roush crashed the plane he was piloting in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It was the second time Roush had crashed one of his aircrafts. Though the injuries were not life-threatening, the mood was somber throughout the team garages.

For Greg Biffle’s team, they managed to use the tragedy to motivate the team already on the upswing in all areas paying extra attention to every detail of the their car. They even used the exact same chassis Biffle had used the week before at Indy to keep all momentum going strong into Pocono. Everything worked as planned and with 20 laps to go, Biffle would take the lead and never looked back. It was an emotional win that the entire organization was delighted to give Roush as medicine while he watched from his hospital bed.

After a strong run in practice and the race itself on the road course of Watkins Glen, The Roush program now gets to go to their favorite race track in the Irish Hills of Michigan, a sprawling 2-mile D-Shaped oval that Roush has won on 11 times. The 11 wins on his home track tie Roush with the legendary Wood Brothers for most all-time wins at Michigan Speedway.

Three of his current drivers have combined to win six of those races with Kurt Busch and Mark Martin chipping in the other five when they were part of the stable.

Roush was released from the hospital Wednesday and while many felt that he would remain at home to rest, there he was Friday during practice and qualifying, at the track, the place he feels more comfortable at than any bed can provide.

The inspiration from Roush showing up at the track obviously gave all four of his teams some added incentive because they all look great during practice. Matt Kenseth isn’t traditionally a good practice driver and had the worst of the four driver’s speeds, but Biffle, Edwards, and even David Ragan came up with some of the fastest speeds. Ragan finished second fastest during happy hour, his best practice of the season.

Based on the team history at Michigan, overall practice speeds and being a team on the rise, Greg Biffle looks like the driver to beat this week. In all three practice sessions, Biffle was never worse than fifth fastest and was the leader in Saturday’s early session.

With all the emotions that the Roush teams have gone through the last three weeks, seeing Roush unexpectedly out on the track is sure to make everyone just a little better in all areas much in the same way the Knicks played in the 1970 NBA Finals after Willis Reed walked out on the court. All facets from the pit stops, critical crew chief calls, and the drivers themselves should all be taken to the top of their game this week.  

Others to Watch
The biggest impact based on practice outside of the Roush cars was made by the Childress drivers. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton were outstanding in all practices and a considerable upgrade from their practices during the June race. The times -- helped by the outstanding engine program of Childress/Earnhardt -- are hard to ignore, but so is RCR history at Michigan where they have been less than stellar over the years, even with Dale Earnhardt.

Harvick hasn’t had a top-five at Michigan since 2003 and it’s been even longer for Jeff Burton. Burton has never finished in the top-five for RCR and his last was with Roush in 2002. In nine races for Clint Bowyer, he’s never tasted a finish better than eighth. This is obviously a new and vastly improved RCR team this year, but it’s still something to mull over when making fantasy or betting decisions.

Kasey Kahne is a past winner at Michigan and was runner-up in the June race. He’ll be starting  from the pole which has traditionally been a great spot to be in at Michigan as history shows that 16 of the 82 races (19.5%) have been won from the pole, including this race last year when Brian Vickers won. Kahne was strong in the early practice Saturday, but slowed a bit during happy hour which had temperature conditions that will be similar to race day.

Jimmie Johnson has had all kinds of greats runs at Michigan over his career, but has the worst luck near the end. Last year he had two wins in the bag and then ran out fuel in each. Michigan is one of only four tracks Johnson has never won at during his career, but remains the only track he visits twice a year that he’s never been the victor. Despite being 0-17 lifetime, he still has a respectable 15.4 average finish. Johnson was fastest during happy hour which is nothing new to him on the track. In June’s race he was fastest in happy hour as well and finished sixth.

Tony Stewart has the look of being sneaky fast this week. He showed more in qualifying and practice than he normally does and has the look of a possible winner and ruining the Roush welcome home party. He’s using the same car he did in the June race where he finished fifth, but despite it being the same car, his practice sessions are drastically improved from that race. He’s looking for his first win of the season and getting bonus points for the start of the Chase for the Championship, so look for Stewart to let it all hang out in what looks like a really good car this week.

Kurt Busch has won at Michigan in both a Ford and Dodge and finished third in the June race. His 19.4 career average in 19 starts doesn’t give the impression that he likes the track very well, but he does. The poor average is due to six starts of finishing 36th or worse which include two 43rd-place finishes during his rookie year. Like Stewart, Busch will be looking to pad his two wins on the season and give himself some separation for the beginning of the Chase.

The driver who was tagged to do well here this week that hasn’t shown anything in practice was Dale Earnhardt Jr.. Michigan is the site of his only win with Hendrick Motorsports -- another fuel mileage win on the track -- and has been his most consistent track since joining the organization. He brought his favorite car -- the same on that finished seventh in June’s Michigan race -- and was beaming with confidence about the team’s prospects in all his pre-race talk, but it doesn’t look promising based on practice. They did get better during happy hour, but were still only 14th fastest.      

See Top-10 Michigan Driver Ratings along with Notes and Quotes Here

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