When a Sprint Cup team falls behind, or wants to get ahead, it's a standard practice to pick up some needed insights on the open market. Mired in a miserable slump, Roush Fenway Racing brought Mark McCardle on board as the engineering director in the off season.
"We've made our tweaks," said Roush, referring to changes to chassis in the off-season. But he might as well have been referring to McCardle as the major tweak. Roush also hired Kevin Kidd from Joe Gibbs Racing to work as the team manager.
So far, the changes are not showing much in the way of results. Greg Biffle finished 10th in Daytona, the best result to date by the team's Fords.
By contrast, Joey Logano, who drives for the Fords of rival Penske Racing, has four Top Ten finishes in the season's four races, including a victory in the Daytona 500.
The young guns at Roush Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne have been mired in mid-pack. They are the ones left standing after the departure of Matt Kenseth, who won one championship and two Daytona 500s with Roush, and Carl Edwards, who found himself in a bit of a victory slump since winning nine times in 2008 before joining Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Former engine builder McCardle, a veteran of Indy 500 victories with Roger Penske followed by an InyCar stop at Toyota, now has 15 years of NASCAR experience. He's been a bit of a fix-it man since first joining Evernham Motorsports on the engine side.
When the Evernham team fell apart amidst the ownership debacle of serial borrower George Gillette, it was McCardle who emerged as the vice president and team leader. Next, he resolved the "one car team syndrome" as the technical director for Furniture Row Racing, scoring a win with Regan Smith.
His next stop was Richard Childress Racing, where he was director of race operations. It was a team that could win some races, but was mired in a championship slump in NASCAR's premier league. No title emerged during the McCardle years, but the team ended up one car length away from a championship last season. Now it's on to Roush Fenway, where McCardle is helping to tweak -- in the word of team owner Roush -- the computer simulation program and the chassis that have been anything but leader dogs.
So far, there has not been much progress.
A massive rule change affecting aerodynamics, suspensions and tires on intermediate speedways is usually an opportunity for a flailing team to get back on a more level playing field, if not to victory lane. All the teams are subject to tearing up cars and starting over.
But it's on the intermediate tracks where the Roush Fords have been falling behind most noticeably. "The hole in our performance was in the 1.5-mile race tracks which have typically been our strength," said Roush in the off-season. "There are a lot of things involved. There is the aero map, the ride map, the analysis of the tire data that flows from NASCAR and we had to make sure we considered those things to not screw up the things that were adequate or strong as we went after the areas we showed some weakness. I characterize our changes as tweaks. We looked at a number of things on the 1.5-mile cars and Mark McCardle and Kevin Kidd have given us some new perspective on some things that have gone on in the industry."
The results in Daytona's plate race and the mile oval in Phoenix have not been encouraging either. Roush now has one of his least stout driving line-ups since the days Mark Martin and Jeff Burton carried the likes of Ted Musgrave, Johnny Benson and Chad Little. Biffle may be capable of a big season in the right circumstances, but that perspective is beginning to wane after all these years.
Roush will likely find a way out of his team's current slump if it's not already in the making with McCardle's arrival. For one thing, Roush is not likely to run out of money any time soon. As the owner of Roush Industries, he's in the league of owners who can self-subsidize if necessary. But Roush long ago mastered the sponsorship game.
Even when slumping, Roush Fords are consistent enough to get TV airtime, the lifeblood of sponsor money. That includes regular appearances by multiple drivers in the Chase. Even when star drivers leave and take sponsors with them, Roush has the marketing genius and ample millions of team co-owner John Henry to help recover.
In 35 years of professional road racing and NASCAR competition with Ford, Roush has seen it all, albeit now with vision from one eye due to an airplane mishap. Although others have longer tenure, in terms of personality Roush is like the Enzo Ferrari of stock car racing. He's a tough infighter on rules and in his relationship with Ford and tends to be cheerfully manipulative of his drivers -- one reason Martin, Kenseth and Edwards all came to stardom with Roush but decided to finish their careers elsewhere.
There's more than the age-old nemesis of the Chevy teams plaguing Roush. Fellow Ford team owner Penske and his bona fide star stable of Logano and Brad Keseloswski are proving an association with Ford is not the problem, a relationship that began anew a mere two seasons ago. No one has muttered anything about a power shortage from the redoubtable V8s from RoushYates Engines. If it's not the Ford bodies or the engines, it's down to the cars built at the Roush Fenway Racing headquarters.
It bodes ill to underestimate either Roush or McCardle, who presumably took the job of engineering director with ample authority to right the ship on the technical side. Historically, Roush has done well by finding a technical edge that others don't have (which resulted in Edwards' nine-win season) and it's unlikely that the team will change this approach. But short term, the team is trying to catch up to what the competition has done.
Roush himself pointed out during the offseason that Biffle finished second in a plate race at Talladega and had a legitimate shot at winning. The team won on a road circuit and at the Bristol short track with Edwards behind the wheel. "We need to maintain our position with our road racing prowess and superspeedway prowess and pick up on the 1.5 and two-mile tracks," said Roush.
The oval at Auto Club Speedway is next up this weekend, where Roush has won seven times since Mark Martin was victorious on the 2.0-mile track in 1998. Biffle scored a win and a second place in 2005 at the Fontana, Calif. circuit and drives the high groove with admirable verve. In the last five seasons, he's been in the top ten four times. But the way things are going at Roush currently, Biffle needs to do more than break into the top ten again at Fontana.