News & Media

Legacy of Roush's No. 6 car rides with Stenhouse

February 21, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The No. 6 car of Roush Fenway Racing may have been the last vehicle to win a Sprint Cup event at Daytona International Speedway, but these Speedweeks it feels like something of a stepchild. The driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., is a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series. The crew chief, Chad Norris, usually runs Roush's research and development department. The entire effort is a one-time deal, partly because the program had top 35 points available from last season, partly to provide the Roush brigade with an even number of entries in Sunday's Daytona 500.

The entire operation is temporary, at least for now, and other than the listed owner and the number on the door, it bears little resemblance to the program that won at Daytona last July. David Ragan, the driver who celebrated in Victory Lane that night, is now with Front Row Motorsports. Drew Blickensderfer, the crew chief at the time, is now with Richard Childress Racing. The team was essentially shut down after the departure of primary sponsor UPS, and lay fallow until Roush resurrected it for the Great American Race.

"I want that number to succeed again, like the days of Mark Martin when he was really running strong and winning races. Hopefully, we can be the guy to get that back going."


But don't tell that to those who comprise the No. 6 team this week, particularly not after Stenhouse opened eyes with an eighth-place run in front-row qualifying on Sunday. No, the program isn't full-time. Yes, it's likely to be shuttered again once the Daytona 500 is over, barring some kind of miracle finish and an unexpected influx of sponsorship. Yet for a little while, at least, Stenhouse and his team are keeping alive the legacy of what for a very long time was the flagship car at Roush, a No. 6 that with Mark Martin behind the wheel was as synonymous with the organization as the owner's Panama hat.

"Obviously, the [6] car has a lot of history with Jack," Stenhouse said. "That's his go-to car, and to be able to be in it and for him to have confidence in me that we can do a good job for that number means a lot. Mark Martin has done a lot of great things in it and won a lot of races with it and, hopefully, we can do the same and keep that going for Jack."

The No. 6 was the first vehicle Roush ever fielded at NASCAR's highest level, with Martin -- and crew chief Robin Pemberton, now the circuit's vice president for competition -- at Daytona in 1988. Martin used that number for the duration of his long and illustrious career at Roush, that Valvoline-backed No. 6 becoming as deeply connected with its race team as the No. 18 has been at Joe Gibbs Racing or the No. 24 is at Hendrick Motorsports. Martin drove the No. 6 until he left Roush following the 2006 season, recording 35 of his 40 career victories in that vehicle.

This year Martin is driving a partial schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing in a No. 55 car, but he'll always be linked to his old No. 6. Ragan took over the car after Martin moved on, and despite flirting with a Chase bid in 2008, the program often struggled until Ragan recorded his first career victory last summer. By then, though, it was too late -- soon afterward word spread that UPS was pulling out, and in a struggling economy Roush was unable to find a replacement. Following last year's finale many crewmen on the No. 6 were reassigned or laid off, and the team was mothballed until being dusted off for a Daytona 500 run.

It all adds up to hard times for what was once Roush's flagship program. But team co-owner Jack Roush has championship contenders in full-time drivers Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle, which helps him avoid any sentimentality over the fate of the No. 6. "It should mean a lot, and it does, because there are a couple of guys still around who were around at that time that made a contribution there," Roush said. "but I love all my children the same."

For Martin, though, the demise of his old team has been tough to watch from afar. "I am pained by that. Jack is greatly pained by that. That's our baby," he said. "But we also have things we have to do and deal with. Though it pains Jack and myself both, we also have to move along. He has three great teams that are on the race track, and he'll have to stay focused on those, and hopefully they'll get the 6 car [back]. They will get it back, it's just, we don't know. But it will be back."

That's Roush's hope, at least. He'd like to fund enough sponsorship to run the vehicle seven times this year, with an eye toward returning it to full-time status with Stenhouse behind the wheel in 2013. Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide Series champion, says he wanted one more year on that circuit to fine-tune himself for the next level. But when it comes to the prospect of moving up to Sprint Cup -- well, his go-kart bore the No. 6. His father's sprint car used the No. 6. His championship car on the Nationwide tour employs the No. 6. That should say it all.

"That would be perfect-world," Stenhouse said. "I told Jack at the end of our 2011 season that I wasn't in a hurry to get to the Sprint Cup level. If I could run full-time Nationwide again, that's what I would like to do, and I told him that I would like to run some Cup races here and there throughout the season, especially toward the end of the season if we were planning on going full-time in '13. ... That's how I envisioned it going, so we'll have to see where that goes. We've got the full-time Nationwide deal and that's what we're going to focus on, but I would love to be in the 6 Cup car. Being 6 in the Nationwide car, I don't want to be jumping around from number to number, so I think it would be nice."

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It all hinges on sponsorship, which at Roush has been an issue as of late. Stenhouse's Nationwide effort was self-funded for much of last season, as was the full-time program of teammate Trevor Bayne. This year, Stenhouse's backing is still limited, and Bayne has been cut back to a partial Nationwide slate due to a lack of funding. Even Kenseth, a former Cup champion, has only a handful of sponsored races thus far on his No. 17 car, which is a perennial contender for the crown. And then there's the No. 6 Cup car, which was shut down until this week. The recent economic downturn seemed to catch up with Roush late, and all at once, in part because so many of the team's sponsorship contracts expired within close proximity to one another.

Other teams have suffered through these kinds of sponsorship droughts too, but they typically occurred over a period of years. Roush Fenway was in the unfortunate position of having many renewals come up at the same time. "You had kind of a perfect storm," said Zak Brown, founder of Just Marketing International, an Indianapolis-based firm that specializes in motorsports and works with some current and former Roush clients.

"It's bad luck," Brown added. "They're not silly. They would not want, ideally, all their contracts coming up at the same time. But for the most part, they were. And where they had their issue is, they didn't take the hit some other teams took in the short term, because they were all protected by contracts. The good news in that was, they didn't feel their economic downturn pain until recently, but they got a big hit because their contracts were up. Whereas say [Richard] Childress, his pain has trickled in at different times because he had contracts up at different times. ... Roush went from no pain, no pain, no pain -- lot of pain. They did have, unfortunately, a lot of contracts up at the same time."

Roush has made a few sponsor announcements, like Fastenal moving from Nationwide to Sprint Cup, and Best Buy appearing on Kenseth's car in a limited role. But in recent months there have been many sponsorship announcements made by other teams, something Stenhouse can't help but notice.

"You always see that, and you wonder," he said. "Obviously, you don't know what they're doing different. All I can do is go out and do the best I can on the race track. ... I'll offer myself up for anything. It doesn't matter. If I need to fly somewhere, I'll do it. But we've noticed other teams announcing sponsorships. You say the times are tough, but then you see those people signing them. If we have to change up what we're doing a little bit, that's what we're going to have to do."

Roush president Steve Newmark will admit, times are tough. But he said the team has adjusted its pricing to fit current economic realties, and warned that a glut of sponsor announcements can sometimes be deceiving.

"I think we get caught up in the number of announcements and the number of races," Newmark said. "... I'd rather have a sponsor come and say, 'I want five races for $5 million' than sell 10 races for $3 million. Even though it will look to everybody else like, well, he didn't sell five races, that situation is better for me. It's sometimes hard to draw a direct correlation between the number of sponsors somebody has, and the number of races they've sold, and the health of that organization."

Brown agreed. "I wouldn't call it the final judgment," he said, adding that Roush is well-positioned to weather its current storm. "Roush is still extremely stable and extremely wealthy," he said. "They weren't living life on the edge like a George Gillett team was. These guys can well afford the situation they're in for a while. ... I don't see this weakening them. It's not the year financially they'd like to have, but they can afford this hit, for sure."

And maybe, one day, get the No. 6 back on its feet again. Stenhouse is doing his part, setting himself up for a promising Speedweeks. There are no guarantees, there is no indication of what the future may hold for the No. 6 program at Roush Fenway. But Stenhouse knows what he'd like to see happen, and it all starts at Daytona.

"To run it in the 500 is going to be pretty special," he said. "I want that number to succeed again, like the days of Mark Martin when he was really running strong and winning races. Hopefully, we can be the guy to get that back going."