When it comes to priorities, bringing the "A" game to Michigan International Speedway has long ranked right at the top of Roush Fenway Racing’s list.
That’s never been the case more than it is this weekend, however.
Located only 66 miles up the road from MIS, in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, is Roush Industries, an engineering company founded by Roush Fenway Racing co-owner Jack Roush. The company employs more than 3,000 people and operates more than 50 facilities in multiple states and globally.
Ford Motor Company — where Jack Roush started working in 1964 and began what is now a five-decades-long relationship with the automaker — is based about an hour from MIS, in Dearborn, Mich.
So with an understandably heavy emphasis on performing well at Michigan, Roush Fenway has spent the better part of the last two decades as a consistent frontrunner at the 2-mile track.
But in a season when speed has been atypically hard to come by for RFR, the organization struggled mightily when the Sprint Cup Series last visited Michigan back in June.
With a best finish of 20th among the organization’s three cars, it’s probably fair to say RFR was downright embarrassed.
Will Sunday’s return to MIS bring about some much-needed redemption for Roush Fenway?
Greg Biffle, a winner of four races at Michigan for Roush Fenway, is optimistic but also not entirely confident.
"It’s been a good track for us," Biffle said in an exclusive sit-down interview with FOXSports.com. "We’ve been really competitive there with four wins, but in the spring we weren’t very fast there, and that is some concern going back there, although we did test there (recently) and found a lot of speed. Now, is a lot of speed enough to beat the other guys? We won’t know until we get there. But we took that speed to Pocono – or some of what we thought we found – and we were certainly faster at Pocono than we were the last time we were there, but still not as fast as the guys we needed to race for the win. So I don’t know until we get (to Michigan) how far we’ve closed in on them, but we certainly picked up speed."
Biffle, who is among several drivers fighting for one of the final spots in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, considers his fifth-place Pocono finish two weekends ago as the latest sign that Roush Fenway may be turning a corner. The result marked Biffle’s first top-five since coming home second at Talladega in early May.
"It was big for us," Biffle said of his Pocono result. "That being said, even though we did that, it really still pointed out to us that we have some work to do. So at the same time that it was a great team boost and great for morale, we also recognized that data point that we’re still off a little bit, but we’ve closed in on it. So we’re going in the right direction."
If there’s any one area in particular where Biffle believes Roush Fenway is still lacking, it’s mechanical grip. To suggest this is the total source of the company’s problems this year is oversimplifying the matter, however.
"What we do know is that it’s not the engine, because it’s the same engine as the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and 22 (Joey Logano) have," Biffle said of the Team Penske drivers, who, like the Roush drivers, race Fords. "The 2 and 22 are running up front, so we can eliminate that data point right there. So that leaves chassis, aerodynamics and suspension – it leaves those elements left – and, trust me, we have beaten that horse to death on, ‘Which one is it? Is it all of them?’
"We keep fighting to find more speed in the wind tunnel, and more downforce, and side force and all of these things, trying to get drivability in our cars. We have made some gains, but they’re slow gains. They’re not the ‘Oh, this is it. We’ve found it.’ We’re looking under every piece of carpet we can find to try and find the speed."
Biffle is winless in the season’s first 22 races, which have produced only seven top-10 finishes, including three top-fives, for his No. 16 team. As a driver with 19 career Sprint Cup victories, along with a Truck Series and Nationwide Series title, all for Roush Fenway, failure to find Victory Lane or often even contend for victories this season has been hard to swallow.
"It’s been a tough year. I’m going to say it’s probably been the toughest year since I’ve been in the sport just because I’m used to winning races, used to running up front," said Biffle, who joined Roush’s Sprint Cup program fulltime in 2003. "There’s two things about it. If you run in the top 10 every week and you haven’t won a race, well, then you can be just foaming at the mouth, right? But when you’re running 20th, your next win’s not right around the corner, so that’s been difficult. Now we’re starting to get back to that speed in the car.
"I’ve always said you can’t win unless you run in the top five. If you’re running seventh through 10th, you’re probably not in position to win. Top five, the winner’s going to come from that spot. So it has been very difficult to go buckle in the race car and go out on the racetrack, pull back in the garage and look at the speed chart and you’re 26th. That’s as fast as your car will go."
If there’s any consolation for Biffle’s frustrations, it’s that he’s convinced none of Roush Fenway’s problems in 2014 have come from being lackadaisical.
"If we got the award for the hardest work and the most time and the most effort and the most hours put in at the shop – while everybody was on vacation, we were all working, testing – we would definitely have the trophy. We would have the Sprint Cup trophy right now," he said. "So it’s not from a lack of effort from anyone – from the engine shop to the gear department, to aero, to chassis, to drivers – we were all there testing on our week off on Monday and Tuesday. We’re trying hard and we’re hoping to close in on these results."
Even as uncertainty lingers at Roush Fenway with the recent revelations that driver Carl Edwards and Biffle’s long-time sponsor, 3M, are both moving on at season’s end, Biffle believes brighter days are ahead.
Possibly as early as this weekend at Michigan.
"We’ve won a tremendous amount of races in this sport – Roush Fenway has," Biffle said. "So we’re gonna get back to winning races. We will get back there. We just hope that curve to get back there is shorter than longer. We know that the first part of this year is done and gone and lost and water under the bridge, and we’ve got from now till the end of the season to continue to improve our performance and try and win races and, heck, make a run for the title."