News & Media

Menzer: Roush Fenway running well; dominoes may fall

July 04, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Questions still surround Ragan's sponsorship, future of Edwards and Bayne

David Ragan's win in the Coke Zero 400 Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was a popular one in NASCAR circles, but underscored the uncertain nature of the sport every year about this time.

For now, that is perhaps more evident at Roush Fenway Racing than anywhere else.

"David has arrived at the upper echelon. He's a winner now and he's given a win to UPS and hopefully they'll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all of their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association."


Why? Take a look at the past two races at Daytona for clues.

For Ragan, 25, Saturday's win not only was his first in 163 Sprint Cup starts but also represented a major dose of redemption after he lost a chance to win this year's season-opening Daytona 500 by making a costly mistake on a late restart. That race was won instead by Trevor Bayne when Ragan, who was leading, cut down in front of Bayne before the start/finish line and drew a black-flag penalty as a result.

The moment that race was over, the rumors started. Was the effervescent if inexperienced Bayne, who turned 20 years old the day before the 500, the true future of Roush Fenway Racing? He won the sport's biggest race on loan from RFR to Wood Brothers Racing in a car that was largely prepared with RFR pieces, parts and a very large dose of technical assistance.

And if Bayne was the future, where and how would he fit in?

Ragan's gaffe in the Daytona 500, which relegated him to a 14th-place finish, made him an obvious target after back-to-back seasons in which he had failed to deliver, finishing 27th and 24th in the points standings.

Saturday's win may not silence the rumors, but it certainly stifles them.

"We got one back at Daytona," Ragan told reporters afterward. "It would have been tough to lose another one. I thought about that under that last caution. I said, 'Man, if we don't win this thing, I'm not gonna want to talk to anyone afterwards.'

"We were able to win. That does ease the pain from February. It's still nice to think about that Daytona 500 ring, but this is awesome. This is a great race."

Chosen one, or two?

Two years earlier when Ragan was coming off a 2008 season in which he finished 13th in the points, car owner Jack Roush said he would be shocked if Ragan didn't win some races in 2009. He called Ragan "the real deal" and predicted stardom for him -- and soon.

Told about it at the time, Ragan admitted the 2009 season that was upon him would be a disappointment if he didn't win races and make the Chase. Keep in mind that Bayne was only 17 at the time and only just beginning to register on most racing organizations' radar.

The season that followed for Ragan wasn't just disappointing. It was more or less a disaster, followed by a 2010 season that was more of the same. Ragan posted the grand total of five top-10 finishes in the 72 races that comprised those two seasons, and didn't even sniff a trip to Victory Lane in any of them -- with zero top-five finishes.

Matt Kenseth, the Roush Fenway driver who pushed Ragan to victory last Saturday night, thinks he knows why Ragan struggled so badly. And why he's not any longer, citing this year's five top-10 and three top-five finishes.

"I've seen David mature a lot and learn a lot," Kenseth said. "I mean, when he came in here and started driving the 6 car, I don't know David's whole racing history, but he didn't have a lot of experience, especially driving big, heavy cars. He's had a couple different crew chiefs and car chiefs and crew and groups, and it's taken awhile until they found a good mix that worked really well with him. I don't know why it's like that, but you've got to get the right mix of people together. You've got to get all those people working right together and it seems like he's got that right now.

"He's had really fast cars all year. ... You could kind of see it coming, so I think just getting the right group of guys together for him and I think just getting more experience and learning have been the keys for him."

But after the way the 500 unfolded and how some other early-season struggles followed for Ragan, suddenly folks began to wonder how the numbers were going to add up at the end of this season. Ragan's sponsor, UPS, wanted a winner as all sponsors do and there were whispers they might be looking to put their money elsewhere or lessen their financial commitment to the sport.

Was it possible Bayne might replace Ragan in the No. 6 car sponsored by UPS? Was Bayne poised to replace Ragan as the Chosen One of RFR's future?

Well, anything is possible. But after Saturday night, it seems less likely that Ragan will be going anywhere anytime soon. Roush's long-term investment in him is only now beginning to pay off like both owner and driver thought it would back in 2008 -- and the journey he has taken to get here, coupled with Bayne's struggles since winning the Daytona 500, are a cautionary tale for those who predicted instant stardom and repeated successes on the track for Bayne. He likely has a few years of growing pains at the Cup level ahead as well.

What's next?

Roush admitted that he hopes Saturday's triumph has a positive impact in his organization's ongoing sponsorship negotiations with UPS. Winning races never hurts in such matters, but losing them can -- and does.

"Certainly we have been hopeful that UPS will carry on in a meaningful regard with the sponsorship of the 6 car, but right now we are in negotiation," Roush told reporters after the race. "We don't have an assurance that's going be the case -- but David has arrived at the upper echelon. He's a winner now and he's given a win to UPS and hopefully they'll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all of their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.

"It certainly means a lot to us; to finally have David in the win column is a really big thing for us. He's had several poles this year and he's been close [to winning] a number of times. ... Happily, we've got this one landed and it'll be something that UPS can think about as they make their determination on what they'll do next year."

Roush also is locked in contract negotiations with driver Carl Edwards, whom he has called "a rock star in our sport." The rumor mill churning over the past few weeks has offered up the possibility that Edwards might command a rock-star salary that Roush is unwilling, in the end, to supply when he can simply drop the marketable Bayne in Edwards' car for a fraction of the cost and still maintain a formidable stable of veteran drivers that would include Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ragan.

That's all speculation for now. Edwards, despite two poor finishes in a row, still sits second in the points and remains one of the top contenders for a championship this season. He repeatedly has stated how much Roush has meant to him in his career and how he wants to win a championship for him -- but that doesn't mean it's a mortal lock he won't bolt for another top-flight organization like Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season if Roush is unable or unwilling to ante up and still balance the RFR books to the owner's liking.

Bayne, incidentally, went from first to worst in the first two Daytona races of his Cup career. He finished last on Saturday night after getting wrecked in the early going. It was a reminder that fame -- and even fantastic results -- can be forever fleeting.

And Ragan's long-awaited visit to Victory Lane served as a reminder that patience and sticking with someone when it sometimes seems time to move on also can have its rewards. Roush Fenway Racing will need to remember all of that as it moves forward into an exciting, if unpredictable, immediate future.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.