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2015 was the year that Roush Fenway Racing hit rock bottom. For the first time in team history, none of the organizations cars made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in its 13-year existence. For the first time in team history, they had no shot at the championship.

Team owner Jack Roush is an equivalent to a racing God. He has placed cars on the track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time for the last 28 years. In its tenure in the Cup Series, RFR has been with one manufacture, Ford. The two sides have stuck with each other through thick and thin, last year being the absolute thinnest.

It is possible that any other team may have folded, but Roush is a racer. It’s what he has done for the majority of his lifetime. The Concord, N.C.-based team has had to overcome tough seasons in the past, but it needs speed to be competitive in 2016.

RFR finished 2015 as a team with an average finish of 23.3, the worst in team history. The worst season for the team prior to 2015 was in 2001 when the team’s average finish was 19.2, though posting two victories. Over the span of the 36-race schedule, the organization led a team-low 43 laps, and went winless for the first time since the 1996 season.

As the team progresses into the new year, it has mixed up its interior design.

 Trevor Bayne is entering his second full season as the driver of the No. 6 AdvoCare Ford. It seems like a distant memory, but the five-year anniversary of his first career win is approaching this February when he took the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.

The team has paired Bayne with veteran crew chief Matt Puccia. For the last four and a half seasons, Puccia worked with former XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series champion Greg Biffle. In the 162 races that the duo worked together they picked up three victories, 24 top fives and 54 top-10 finishes, including 21 in 2012.

2012 was arguably one of Biffle’s best seasons in terms of consistency as he posted a career-best 10.2 average finish. Since that season, he’s cooled down only picking up one win at Michigan in 2013.

For Bayne, he needs leadership. It seems like he’s been around longer than he really has, but 2016 will be only his second full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series. He finished 29th in the championship standings, and didn’t lead a single lap all season long, not even on the restrictor plate tracks, which he normally runs near the front.  

 “I think last season we were kind of shoved into the dark a little bit, we didn’t know what we were going into,” Bayne told Speedway Digest. “We were optimistic, but we didn’t know. This season we have a lot more notes. We’ve had people in places for longer. I know my crew chief Matt Puccia. I’ve done this for a season so I know what that grind is like. I feel like I can be more optimistic.”

Bayne has had to overcome remarkable odds to ever step foot back into a competitive car due to having Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the central nervous system.  

After taking some time off, Bayne has trained extremely hard to make sure he can make it through a full event. He went to Victory Lane in the XFINITY Series at Iowa in 2013, the only time he has been victorious since the diagnosis in NASCAR, he does have one victory in the ARCA Racing Series at Pocono in 2015.

Since that time, the 24-year-old has grown up. Bayne got married to his longtime girlfriend, had a child and is now competing full-time in the Cup Series.

“This season versus last season, our team the way that its working together is a lot different,” Bayne said. “It’s not just saying ‘hey we’re working together’ it’s actually making physical changes in the race shop. It’s putting all of the cars together.

“It’s moving all of the crew chiefs to one office. It’s the drivers coming in and being a part of the meetings. That leads to change and that leads to forward progress in our organization.”

The organization as a whole is destined to do better this season.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is entering his fourth full-time season in the No. 17 car. The two-time XFINITY Series champion has underperformed in his first three seasons, but his relationship with Bayne could be crucial going forward.

The two younger drivers are potentially the future of RFR. Stenhouse is in a contract season and knows that he needs to up the ante in 2016 coming off a season in which he only produced three top 10s.

Biffle is entering the twilight of his career as he is the oldest full-time driver in the Cup Series. He is signed through the 2017 season, and this will more than likely that will be his last stint in the No. 16 car. With drivers such as Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Chris Buescher, who is laying in the weeds over at Front Row Motorsports, the pressure is on the younger drivers. The 45-year-old has established himself with RFR and is the leader on that team.

The key to the movement could be the Bayne, Puccia relationship. The driver is known for getting everything out of the racecar and sometimes pushing the envelope just a little too much. With a new crew chief coming in, it could be the perfect match for the kid. Cool, calm and collective will be their focus.

“I think that as I was talking about communication, he and I have that,” Bayne said. “Our personalities are a lot alike in racing. We’re racers, that’s what we are. That’s what we have in common. We talk about it and work on our cars. I’ve known him for a long time. I believe in him.”

The pressure to perform is at an all-time high for Bayne. His start in the No. 6 car is similar to David Ragan’s back in 2007. He picked up his first career top-five finish in the Daytona 500 and then fell of the face of the Earth. He picked up another top-five and tallied a total of three top 10s in his rookie campaign. At the time, Ragan posted four DNF’s compared to Bayne’s three, but finished on the lead lap more times than the 2015 season.

Those numbers are very similar to the current driver of the legendary No. 6 team.

Competing for a championship isn’t a realistic expectation this season for Bayne and the rest of Roush Fenway Racing, but making the Chase is. Once a team is in the Chase, anything can happen.

On Sunday morning, just hours before the Brickyard 400, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Carl Edwards’ departure from the organization. Edwards’ story is well known. He snuck into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage area to hand out business cards, and after racing for the Mittler Brothers, Cousin Carl caught the eyes of Jack Roush.

Over the past several seasons, the team’s performance has depreciated, and it has shown since Edwards finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in 2011. With Edwards departing the only team he has known in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Roush has to move on – whether they want to or not.

“We made him an offer, but I believe his decision was not based on – NASCAR racing, Cup racing is a big-time sports entertainment thing today.  Like football and baseball and basketball, athletes move around.  We wish it wouldn’t happen, but there’s curiosity about what another team’s situation would look like and I think that although I shouldn’t speculate, I think Carl wanted to try something different before he saw his career get in its middle term and its final years,” Roush said on Sunday morning.

Replacing Edwards will be Trevor Bayne – the 2011 Daytona 500 winner. Bayne has struggled with his health over the past several years, and announced late last season that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – a disease that disrupts the nervous system. Fortunately, the 23-year-old doesn’t have any serious symptoms of the disease, and it will not have an effect on his career. He’s been racing on a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers – a Roush satellite team, but with Advocare moving up the ranks with him, Bayne will be able to race full-time at NASCAR’s top division.

This will leave Greg Biffle as the team’s lead driver. Biffle has struggled on a higher level compared to Edwards this year. He has just five top-10s along with a pair of top-fives. With 3M likely resigning as Biffle’s primary sponsor, Roush does have some long-term security. However, as a 44-year-old, he might be nearing the end of his prime.

“It doesn’t look different than when Mark Martin stepped away and we were left with Greg and Carl to go forward.  We’ve been in this business, as I said, for 27 years counting and we have made it our habit, our practice, our preference to bring drivers in,” Roush said. “We’ve brought in 23 drivers that had never been part of NASCAR before and 19 of them are still in this sport and 17 of them have won races, so we’re pretty much on time. We may have more rookies, but Ricky and Trevor and Greg are gonna be great.  I’m real excited about that for next year and not less excited than I’ve been at any time in the past.”

 “Certainly the focus of our leadership is gonna be with Greg Biffle and the things that he does with the race car and the leadership he provides for the engineering initiatives we take.  We had that split with Carl and Greg together this year, so that will be a little different next year, but Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) is ready to step up.”

Now, Stenhouse will be the team’s No. 2 driver. Like Biffle, he has struggled this year as well. In a season in which he has been reunited with Mike Kelley – the same crew chief that led him to two Nationwide Series titles, the sophomore driver has four top-10s, but sits 27th in points. However, the team has faith in him – just like they did with Edwards and Biffle over a decade ago.

Roush has certainly struggled with consistency this season. Their strength has moved away from the intermediate tracks, and is slowly reeling towards the short tracks – the minority of the schedule. Edwards has been the team’s lead driver since Matt Kenseth made the move to join Joe Gibbs Racing after the completion of the 2012 season. However, neither Edwards nor Biffle have been able to step up to the plate. Although he has to wins this year, the 34-year-old has struggled, and he understands that.

"Right now, the mission is to win this championship, this race. This is my decision. It's a decision I made, and I didn't take it lightly,” Edwards said. “Sometimes you just want to make a change, and opportunities present themselves and you say, 'Hey, what was that like to not take that opportunity?'"

It is likely that Edwards will be joining Joe Gibbs Racing – a Toyota organization – in a fourth vehicle. The team has run a fourth car in the past with David Gilliland and Joey Logano in 2008, as well as Elliott Sadler in select races last season. However, they have never run a fourth car on a full-time basis after starting the No. 11 team with Jason Leffler in 2005 before Denny Hamlin took the reins of that car.

As he stated, Edwards’ deal has been completed with another organization. Although he did not admit to signing the Missouri-native, team owner Joe Gibbs, admitted to having discussions to start a fourth team. If this were to happen, Edwards would be driving a non-Ford owned car for only the second time in his career. The lone occasion which he didn’t race a car with the blue oval on the nose was in 2002 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Gateway with Fred Bickford where he raced a Chevrolet.

“Carl Edwards has been a part of the Ford family for a decade, and it will certainly be tough to see him leave Ford and Roush Fenway Racing. During Carl’s time with Roush, he has represented Ford Motor Company with the utmost class, both on and off the track. We at Ford Racing did everything to facilitate keeping Carl a part of the Ford Racing & Roush Fenway family, but in the end that option did not come to fruition,” said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing.

For the future, Roush does have some promising drivers moving up the ranks. Chris Buescher, winner of the 2012 ARCA Series title, is racing the team’s No. 60 car in the Nationwide Series, and sits seventh in points. Buescher is a candidate for Bayne’s part-time ride at the Wood Brothers and would be the ideal scenario for both sides. However, Ryan Reed is also in the Nationwide Series. Reed has struggled slightly more than Buescher, but is starting to gain momentum after being labeled one of the series’ most frequent crashers earlier in the year.

The Roulo Brothers team in the ARCA Series – Roush’s satellite team in that division, has Kyle Benjamin and Kyle Weatherman in their stable as well. They are expected to move up the ranks like Buescher and Reed over the next few years – giving Roush some stability for the future.

“Our goal when we bring drivers up through the system is to retain them – to have them start with us, to win championships and then to retire with us, so this is all part of the process.  I think if you talk to Greg and Jack they would tell you that they have some unfinished business. They set out a while ago to be the first tandem to win the Truck, the Nationwide and the Cup championship,” said Steve Newmark, President of Roush Fenway Racing. “It’s always disappointing when you lose a driver that you bring up through the organization.  I think everyone is aware that we pride ourselves on being a driver development program.  It’s in our DNA and our heritage.”

Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was awarded the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for the 2013 season.

In his first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Stenhouse posted three top-10 finishes in the final 11 races of the season and finished third at Talladega Superspeedway in October. He also captured the Coors Light Pole Award at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

His finished out the season 19th in points with an average finish of 18.9.

His girlfriend, Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick, was also in contention for the award.

Patrick started off strong at the Daytona 500 in February. She became the first woman to win the pole and finished eighth, but fell short the remainder of the season. 

But Stenhouse had two consecutive Nationwide Series titles before his first season in Cup. Patrick had one full Nationwide season and two part-time seasons.

Patrick, who ended the season 27th in the standings, said winning the award was a "long shot."

"That was going to be tough to compete with no matter who you are," Patrick said. "I struggled to compete for wins. It was going to be a huge accomplishment if I did it."

Kansas Speedway qualifying turned in to a pretty special day for Kevin Harvick. For the first time since 2006, Harvick will sit on the pole for the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday afternoon. Knocking Ricky Stenhouse Jr. off of the pole, Harvick will have the honor of first pit stall in the 4th Race for the Chase. Harvick ran a lap speed of 187.526, just slightly faster than Rookie Stenhouse Jr at 187.480.

Harvick topped practice earlier in the day and had nothing but praise for his team. "Everybody on our Budweiser team has done a good job," he said in his press conference following the Pole win. "We made a couple really good runs in practice...but we knew the conditions would be cooler so we put the car back how we started practice and hoped that the race track came our way."

Stenhouse ran a great qualifying lap but unfortunately it just wasn't quite good enough. "We were close but our average start here at Kansas is going to be pretty solid now," he said following his qualifying run.

Jimmie Johnson, who currently sits second in points, will start third on Sunday with a qualifying speed of 187.162.

With some incidents during practice that included a spin and a leaking oil cooler and radiator, Johnson still managed to put his Lowe's No.48 Chevrolet in the second row for Sunday.

Here is how your Chase Contenders qualified:

P1: Kevin Harvick

P3: Jimmie Johnson

P5: Joey Logano

P6: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

P7: Matt Kenseth

P9: Carl Edwards

P14: Jeff Gordon

P15: Kasey Kahne

P17: Ryan Newman

P18: Kyle Busch

P19: Kurt Busch

P22: Clint Bowyer

P26: Greg Biffle

Well, she has boyfriend, and his name is Richard. That’s right; Danica Patrick announced yesterday in an exclusive interview with Jenna Fryer, that she and fellow Sprint Cup Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are now an item.

 

"I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this," Patrick giggled. "We are dating, and I know there's been a bit of a runaround this week at the media days and poor Ricky got grilled," she said. "It was out of respect to NASCAR, to all the manufacturers, the new cars, the teams, the sponsors, just to allow the news of the day to be about racing and not let anything interfere with that. So, it's Friday now, so that's why we waited until the end of the week to be up front about each other."

 

Stenhouse, the two-time reigning Nationwide Series Champ, and Patrick, have been friends both on and off the track since she made the move to NASCAR in 2010. Stenhouse was sort of a mentor to Patrick as she made the transition from open-wheel racing and the two of them could often be found laughing and poking fun before the Nationwide races in 2012.

 

When asked about the relationship during the Media Tour, Stenhouse replied simply with “We have a great relationship,” then turned the focus back on racing. When Friday’s news hit, he had a different comment.

 

"Yes we are dating," he said. "I don't normally say too much about my private life, always been focused on the track. I didn't want to confirm at media day so that we could keep the focus on the season, the Gen-6, my sponsors and team. That's what it's all about for me."

 

Now you may be thinking, isn’t Patrick still married? Technically, yes. After announcing the split from her husband of 7 years, 47 year old Paul Hospenthal, in November, 30 year old Patrick filed for divorce in early January saying the marriage was “irretrievably broken.”  In the state of Arizona, where the two lived, it takes at least 60 days for a divorce to be finalized.

 

Immediately after Patrick announced her impending divorce, rumors started flying about her and 25 year old Stenhouse, with the bulk of them coming in the last few days. Both of them are known for keeping their private lives under lock and key, but they decided to make an exception and end speculation.

 

"I think that moving forward into the year, it's a matter of do you say anything at all, or do you just carry on?" she said. "As opposed to speculation and people making up their own stories or talking amongst themselves or us feeling uncomfortable walking into each other's (motorhomes) moving forward, or around our teams or anything, it's just easier to be up front and get it out of the way then to have any kind of awkward speculation."

 

With both of them moving to the Sprint Cup Series full time, many fans and drivers are probably wondering, will they race each other differently? Both Patrick and Stenhouse say no.

"Obviously, we've been racing together for a couple years now, him and I have always gotten along, Patrick said. “We've always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there's never been an issue out there. I always say I'll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don't anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track."

 

Stenhouse agreed with her statement.

 

"It won't affect how I race on the track. I want to go out and win, I race everyone hard," he said.

 

Although Stewart-Haas Racing wouldn’t comment on the relationship, Roush Fenway President Steve Newmark said Friday that it is not a concern.

 

“Our drivers want to win,” he said. “They want to win races and championships and we have no worries about how hard any of them will race any other competitor on that track to reach those goals. Anyone that thinks that may be an issue for any of our drivers on the track doesn’t know our drivers very well.”

 

Scrolling through Twitter yesterday, this new power couple already has multiple celebrity couple names including “Danihouse” and “Stenica” as well has multiple jabs and jokes regarding their relationship.  

 

Patrick took to her personal Twitter page yesterday to address the comments saying, “Thanks everyone for all of your nice messages, and the bump drafting jokes are cracking me up! Let the fun begin.”

 

Patrick and Stenhouse are both battling for the coveted Rookie of the Year title this season.  This relationship just made the battle considerably more interesting.  Will this relationship change the outcome on the track? I guess for Rookies Danica Patrick and Richard Lynn Stenhouse, we will have to wait and see. 

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