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Roush Fenway moves to front of the pack at Daytona

July 06, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Roush Fenway moves to front of the pack at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Roush Fenway Racing drivers used to come to Daytona International Speedway gritting their teeth, as if each trip to NASCAR's most famous race track was like a visit to the dentist.

They had good reason, given that it could be just as painful. For years the team owned by Jack Roush seemed a step behind other traditional powers on restrictor-plate tracks, always chasing the likes of Hendrick Motorsports or Dale Earnhardt Inc. Victories at the sport's largest venues were few and far between -- Roush went 12 years before breaking through at Daytona and a dozen more between victories at Talladega Superspeedway. Plate races were a glaring weakness for an organization that was strong everywhere else. Thankfully, there were only four of them each year.

"It seems like there's been a very active effort to go out and be better at these tracks, even though there are only a few of them a year, and I think it's paid off."

--CARL EDWARDS

"For years, we came here and we'd just kind of grit our teeth and slog through this weekend and try to get what we could," Carl Edwards remembered, "because we didn't really have the fastest cars."

That was evident in the results. The team with the most wins at Daytona is the Wood Brothers, with 15. The active leader is Hendrick with 10. A season ago at this time, Roush's team had four, one fewer than Larry McClure or Ray Nichels, owners who fielded much smaller teams and have been out of the picture for years. Now, that same Roush Fenway outfit swaggers back to Daytona this weekend on the heels of two straight victories on the famed 2.5-mile oval, with former driver David Ragan's win here last summer preceding Matt Kenseth's second victory in the Daytona 500.

The favorite to win the 400-mile Sprint Cup event Saturday night? It would be difficult to bet against a Roush Fenway stable that these days shows across-the-board strength here, ranging from Edwards (ninth or better in seven of his past 10 Daytona starts), Kenseth (eighth or better in six of his past eight) and Greg Biffle (third place in the Daytona 500 in both 2010 and 2012). Even Ragan, who moved to Front Row Motorsports after his No. 6 car at Roush Fenway was shut down for sponsorship reasons, preceded his Daytona breakthrough last summer with a near-miss in the 2011 Daytona 500, where a chance to win was lost because of a penalty he incurred for jumping a late restart.

Roush Fenway has evolved from an afterthought at Daytona to a team that's been able to show sustained strength, even on a track where the whims of aerodynamics can produce almost capricious results. The organization always has had good plate racers, dating to its days with Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray. But it never had cars good enough for those drivers to mount consistent challenges at Daytona, and its finishes were often lacking as a result.

"We used to come here, and we'd be slotted between 15th and 30th all the time," said Biffle, who won the 2003 summer race on fuel mileage. "That was a little frustrating, because we are a good company, we have fast cars everywhere. We'd come here, and we'd struggle a little bit. So we found some speed secrets."

Biffle gives some of that credit to Todd Parrott, now crew chief for Ford stable mate Marcos Ambrose. Parrott formerly oversaw Roush Fenway's research and development arm. Restrictor-plate prowess is a cyclical thing, and Parrott was Dale Jarrett's crew chief at Robert Yates Racing when that team was almost unbeatable at Daytona in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The legacy of those Yates teams also lives on in Doug Yates, chairman of the Roush-Yates company that builds and supplies engines for Ford programs. He is someone else Roush Fenway drivers credit with helping their organization turn the corner at Daytona.

"It seems like Jack and everyone at Roush Yates, Doug and everyone, said, 'Hey, let's really put some more effort into this. Let's be the best we can be. It's four races a year.' And it's paid off," Edwards said. "We've got fast race cars. We've got better teamwork on the race track. I think we understand these races a little better, and it's been a lot of effort, and it cost Jack a lot of money and Ford, and I think it's paid off."

So much about success on plate tracks is about emphasis. The DEI cars were so good in their heyday because winning at Daytona and Talladega was a priority handed down from Dale Earnhardt. Conversely, it was once easy to dismiss plate races -- hey, only four a year, right? -- at the expense of the intermediate tracks that dominate the Sprint Cup Series. This year's Daytona 500, where Edwards and Biffle swept the front row in qualifying and Kenseth won the race, offered further proof that those days are gone at Roush Fenway.

"I may be remembering it wrong, but it seems to me when we talked about restrictor-plate races five or six years ago, we'd come in after practice and say, 'Man, this car is slow,' and then say, 'It'll draft fine. Once the race starts, none of that matters.' It was kind of like we blew off how much of a disadvantage we were giving up," Edwards said. "I guess we didn't really take it seriously to the extent that maybe some of the other teams did. We didn't really, really focus on these races.

"It seems like there's been a very active effort to go out and be better at these tracks, even though there are only a few of them a year, and I think it's paid off. If you look at those pictures of Jack and me and Greg sitting in Victory Lane after qualifying at Daytona, Jack was in his element. It was pretty cool, and I think that we've turned the corner at these tracks, and I think it's really good. I think it's the smart thing to do."

And yet, Roush Fenway's plate-track rise coincides with improvement the organization has made overall. Although Edwards is currently outside the Chase bubble, he lost the championship in a tiebreaker last season. Although Biffle missed the playoff last year, he's been among the more consistent drivers on the circuit in 2012. Kenseth, the current Cup points leader, is steady throughout. After disappointing 2009 blamed on bad simulation software that put the team behind at the race track, the Roush Fenway programs seem to be better everywhere, Daytona included.

"It spilled over into restrictor-plate racing, which made us better," Biffle said. "Some other teams focused on it a bit more than we did, and it showed. But now that we have the capacity, the expanded amount of engineers and seven-post rigs and all these things, it's easier for us to focus more of our efforts on restrictor-plate racing, and I think ultimately that kind of raised the bar for us."