Saturday, March 5, 2011

Roush Drivers Flex Their Muscles In Vegas and Get Back To Normalcy

By Micah Roberts

Kenseth wins pole, but why has Edwards autographed? 
It’s been a bumpy ride getting back to the top for the Roush-Fenway program, but after witnessing the show they put on Friday and Saturday during all qualifying and practice sessions in Las Vegas, It’s safe to say they are back stronger than ever with a vengeance.

After slumping the bulk of the 2009 season, and then the first half of 2010, the tide has turned. In preparation for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400, all four of the Roush drivers have been putting on a display, leaving most of the other teams scratching their heads wondering what they’re doing to be so fast.

The speed show all started Friday morning with Matt Kenseth setting the pace with the fastest lap in practice, and then later, setting the track qualifying record.

It’s a nice change for the team after the last two seasons, but it’s not like it’s something new for the Roush organization. The cookie cutter type of tracks that include 10 races on mile-and-half tracks and -- for good measure -- three others on the two-mile facilities of Michigan and California, have long been the tracks where Jack Roush put forth most of his efforts and had the most success, whoever was driving his cars.

In Las Vegas, no one has better than Roush over the years. In the 13 Cup races, a Roush driver has claimed six of them, including winning the first three in a row. In the three major NASCAR series, Roush has claimed an astonishing 17 wins on the track.

However, in the last six years, Roush has been caught up in the Jimmie Johnson show and has captured only one Las Vegas race. His last Vegas win came from Carl Edwards in 2008, one of nine wins on the season from the No. 99 Ford.

Celebration after winning first two races of 2009
After winning the Daytona 500 and Fontana race with Matt Kenseth to start the 2009 season, the entire stable of Roush drivers went into a major decline on all the tracks that they had seen so much success on over the years. It was almost like Jack Roush made a deal with the Devil to win his first Daytona 500 -- and then the following week -- in trade for the soul of his team’s next 50 races. It all just ended so quickly.

After some fiddling around with the new FR-9 engine and new chassis', they finally got things going with some serious horsepower in Greg Biffle’s car at Indianapolis. Biffle would follow that up by winning a week later at Pocono and then win on the Kansas cookie-cutter in October. Edwards would follow suit by winning the last two races of the 2010 season, including the 1.5-mile track of Homestead.

All that building momentum has exploded onto the 2011 scene in Las Vegas with their first opportunity to collectively show off the fruits of their labor on their favorite type of tracks. In the first practice session, Kenseth paced the way with his three teammates all placing within the speed chart’s top-five. In qualifying and happy hour, three of them also finished within the top-five.

Although Kenseth has been the fastest in all sessions, it appears that he’s fastest on one or two lap runs and slows more in the ensuing laps than Edwards and Biffle, both of whom had the fastest average speeds in happy hour.

Busch had the fastest 10 consecutive lap average in HH
The driver who looks the closest to the Roush drivers was Kyle Busch. In happy hour he had the second fastest single lap, fifth fastest average speed and fastest 10 consecutive lap average. To have average speeds that strong when he ran a session high 61 laps is pretty is a great indicator that he’ll be a serious threat to ruin the Roush party.

Tony Stewart stood out as the top Chevy driver of the day, which came as somewhat of a surprise considering Johnson’s reign in Vegas and all the horsepower the ECR engines have shown on these tracks over the last year. The Childress group was led by Paul Menard with the third best average speeds.

Even though they didn’t do much in practice, the likes of Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer should all find a way to be better on race day. Harvick was notoriously a bad practice driver last season on 1.5-mile tracks, but always managed to find his way deep inside the top-10 when the race was over. Gordon did the same thing last week at Phoenix.

Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann and A.J. Allmendinger also made a good showing during the final practice session.

Based on the track history of Cup racing in Las Vegas, there aren’t many instances of surprise winners. From what we’ve seen in two days leading up to the race, it looks like much of the same with Edwards, Biffle, Busch and Kenseth being formidable giants for all the others to tackle.

Top 10 Vegas Driver ratings Following All Practice Sessions

No comments: