News & Media

Caraviello: RFR revival shows ups, downs all part of a cycle

May 29, 2011, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- It's still co-owned by the man in the Panama hat and it still fields cars with a blue oval on the front, but much has changed at Roush Fenway Racing since it last came to Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR's longest race. A year ago its three top drivers were all mired in what would become long winless streaks, its fourth faced speculation about his job security, and the organization as a whole seemed a step behind the championship contenders on the sport's top series. There were delays in implementing a new engine, there were problems with simulation software, and there were questions about what the heck was going on at Roush.

Well, look at them now. Now Roush struts into Charlotte with two of the top contenders for the Sprint Cup title (Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth), another driver (Greg Biffle) in position to make the Chase, and a fourth (David Ragan) who has shown marked improvement and appears capable of winning a race. Roush built the car of Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, helped work out the kinks on a next-generation Ford engine that's paying dividends, and corrected software simulation errors that put the team so behind every time it unloaded at a race track last year. And in the process it showed that in NASCAR, wheels aren't the only things that go around.

"Today, there's no tricks in the sport. It's hard work."


Teams' fortunes do as well, ebbing and flowing because of technology and competition, as surely as a tide lapping at a beach. They rise, they decline, and they rise again. For the top organizations on NASCAR's premier level, success and struggle are part of an inevitable cycle, one that comes around as surely as cars circle a race track of team transporters roll around the country.

"When you lose your mojo, the first tendency is to panic," said Steve Hmiel, competition director at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, "which is why you need to have experienced people around who understand it's a cyclical business. When I was a young man, and very inexperienced, I worked for Richard Petty in the early '70s. We'd have times we didn't run good, believe it or not. And we were always going, man, Richard still only comes to work at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and he doesn't seem to be in any hurry, and that guy needs to get off his butt and do something. The truth is, he just realized it would come back."

It does, but not without work. Roush reached its height in NASCAR in the mid-2000s, winning back-to-back titles with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, placing five drivers in a then-10-man Chase the next year, and in the process almost single-handedly spurring a pair of revolutionary rule changes -- a playoff championship format and a four-car ownership cap. That very same organization scuffled through much of the past two years, and saw its top three drivers all mired in long winless streaks: a 64-race skid for Biffle that ended late last summer, a 70-race skid for Edwards that ended last fall, and a 76-race skid for Kenseth that didn't end until this spring.

Now, those days seem like a memory. Edwards leads the Sprint Cup standings, won last weekend's All-Star exhibition, and has a chance to give Roush its first victory in a points race at Charlotte in nine years. Kenseth is one of just three multiple-race winners on the circuit this season. Biffle has shown flashes that he can contend, Ragan has shown flashes that he can win a race. "Slow cars, we don't have to worry about that right now," Ragan said. The turnaround happened because Roush stayed patient, identified the problems, and improved its areas of weakness.

"Today, there's no tricks in the sport. It's hard work," owner Jack Roush said. "You go to a place like Daytona, the biggest reason we were able to have the dominance we had there with all of our Ford cars is, the cooling systems worked better. It's the cooling system performance, the aero performance, the brakes, the kinematics of the suspension. All of those things have to be right. It's not a matter of finding a trick. With all the inspectors they have today, they won't let you have a trick. It's a matter of doing the complete job better than everybody else. Once you get that going for you, you can ride it for a while. We're going to see what we can do with it for the rest of the year."

The improvements are so numerous, Biffle can scarcely name them all. "It's so many things," he said. "Every time we come to the race track it's like, this is the lightest car we've built. And then two weeks later they're like, this is better. And not necessarily just lighter, but aerodynamics, components. We found this or that, or some new whatever. We changed some products in the car. We're building new dashes. We're using less wiring or smaller wiring. We're able to move some things around inside the car. We've got the new engine. ... One thing can screw you up, but not one thing can make you go fast. It's always a combination."

"The trick is to not lose faith in the tools that you use to tune your car, and to not get off base and start asking other people. Because when you ask other people, you only get a third of the story."


Right now, Roush is at one end of the cycle, and Earnhardt Ganassi is at the other. Although the team didn't make the Chase last season, it enjoyed a strong year with four race wins, including victories at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte by Jamie McMurray. Now McMurray is 22nd in points, teammate Juan Montoya is 15th, and both programs are searching. In practice Saturday at Charlotte, Hmiel said McMurray tried a new front-end setup approach, Montoya tried a new rear-end strategy, and the teams would meet afterward to decide on what worked best and what would go in both cars for the Coca-Cola 600. That's the only way to break the cycle -- to stay patient and true to your processes. NASCAR is not a sport for quick fixes.

"The trick is to not lose faith in the tools that you use to tune your car, and to not get off base and start asking other people," Hmiel said. "Because when you ask other people, you only get a third of the story. Not that they're lying to you, but it's a package. We had a really good package last spring, last summer, last fall. We don't have a very good package right now. So the easiest thing to do is say, we're the dumbest people in the world, we've forgotten everything we ever knew, let's run trough the entire garage and come up with a kitchen sink kind of thing. That's not how you do it. You have to go back to work."

That means combing through every area -- wind tunnel. simulation, seven post, engine shop, chassis geometry -- and searching for deficiencies in any or all of them, similar to how Roush identified shortcomings in its vendor-supplied simulation software last season. There is no speedy way to do that, not even in a sport where speed is what it's all about. Corrections often take weeks, forcing teams to suffer through one lackluster race weekend after another while they're trying to sort things out. Roush went through that last year. EGR is going through it now. It's often a slow, frustrating process.

"The trouble with fixing it is, there's more pain ahead," Hmiel said, "because there is no magic bullet. If you're going to do it the right way, and you're really going to find where you got off, and you're not just reacting to today's problem ... you've got to keep casting around. It's a very hard thing to do, but you just have to go, look, this isn't going to get better for a little while. We have to rely on what got us here and try and to understand what we're doing wrong now."

Compounding the problem is the fact that it's not all up to you. Mark Martin estimates that 80 percent of teams' fortunes are dictated by the competition, and that natural rise and fall is often less a matter of what you're doing wrong than it is a matter of what the guys in the other garage stall are doing better. "The competition, you don't control them," Martin said. "[It's] maybe 20 percent in your area .... When they finally hit on something, then you are not at a competitive advantage, and you might look at yourself and say well, we got behind. Well, you weren't behind until all of a sudden somebody stumbled on to something."

And then there's the oxymoronic concept of being set back by winning, which sounds strange but makes sense when you realize how reticent teams often are to make changes when everything is working. Meanwhile, everyone else in the garage area is scurrying to catch up. Hmiel theories that was one reason behind Roush's slump of the past two years, and why his Earnhardt Ganassi team is in the trough now.

"The Roush guys killed us that one year, and they didn't want to change their stuff because they were running so good, and the rest of us went to work," he said. "And then we were good last year, and it was like, I wouldn't do a whole lot, it was pretty damn good. ... It's so competitive, you're afraid to mess up your deal. But when you're not moving forward, you're probably messing up, because the guy behind you is moving forward."

Which explains why Rick Hendrick made a series of crew chief swaps even after his organization won another championship this past season behind Jimmie Johnson. "I've always drawn the conclusion that if you get complacent because you're doing well, then the cycle is going to come and find you," Kurt Busch said. "You always have to look around, find new ideas and polish up in areas that might not be an A-plus .... I've seen those Roush guys at Texas, you could just see the new level of competition they have under the hood. David Ragan is on the pole by two-and-a-half tenths. That just doesn't happen every day. They've got their program together, and everybody has to advance more to be on top."

The next task for Roush is Charlotte, a track where the team hasn't won a points event since Martin prevailed here in the fall of 2002. That's a drought that encompasses 83 individual starts by 10 different drivers, among them Busch, McMurray, Dave Blaney and Todd Kleuver. But the Roush organization has proven quite adept at snapping skids lately, and if the team's revival tells us anything, it's that things eventually come back around.

"I think the progress here is emblematic of the progress we've made overall," Edwards said. "I think it's a really good sign, because this has been a place [where] we've obviously struggled. I didn't know it was that bad, so for us to run the way we are right now here, I think is another little piece of evidence that we have made real progress. This is not just a flash in the pan. We have become better, and that's good."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.