Roush Fenway Racing’s optimistic offseason now a troubling reality
Roush Fenway Racing was once a powerhouse in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Now, they are simply struggling to keep up.
In the first five races of the 2015 season, the organization has just one top-10 finish and none of its three drivers are in the top 20 in the series standings.
Throughout much of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana, the team’s XFINITY Series driver, Chris Buescher, outran his teammates while making his Sprint Cup debut driving the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford.
In the end, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was able to lead the RFR charge, finishing 15th on Sunday with help from four fresh tires on the final restart. Trevor Bayne finished 29th, while Greg Biffle gambled late, was spun out on the last lap and finished 32nd.
Sunday’s results were typical for the Roush brigade in 2015. Despite promises of major changes and lessons learned over the offseason, this season has turned into more of the same for Roush Fenway Racing.
Through the first five races of the season, Biffle sits 21st in points with an average finish of 21.6, Stenhouse is 26th in the standings with an average finish of 24.2, and Bayne is bringing up the rear in 27th with an average finish of 26.8.
In his Sprint Cup debut, Buescher finished 20th driving another team’s Ford, while Brad Keselowski delivered the second victory of the season for the Blue Ovals. The success of other Ford teams is hard to ignore for Roush’s veteran driver.
After struggling with the handling all weekend and qualifying 29th, Biffle said the team was "dying a slow death."
However, Biffle is convinced it is not necessarily a Ford issue.
"I’ll pay you a lot of money if you tell me and if you can go find that out for me," Biffle said when asked what Team Penske was doing different from Roush. "It’s no different than what is Ganassi (a Chevrolet team) doing different than we are. These cars are real similar aerodynamically. The suspension and chassis, they could be identical. You could take one of those cars, cut the body off and put a Ford body on it and have the same suspension and shocks and springs that they have today. They’ve figured out whatever they’ve figured out that we’re trying to figure out. They’ve figured it out like the other guys have and we feel like we’re gaining on it."
Those comments came ahead of Sunday’s race, where the three Roush drivers once again struggled to remain on the lead lap.
Stenhouse, who was the highest finishing Roush car, was not in the top 15 until the final nine laps of the race. Biffle gambled late by not pitting ahead of the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, but immediately fell through the field once the race restarted. He was then turned into the outside wall on the final lap after contact with Clint Bowyer. Bayne was a non-factor throughout the 209-lap event, running between 23rd and 36th much of the day.
Prior to the start of the season, Biffle said the organization had a "fundamental problem" when single-car teams were out-running them in 2014.
"We’ve tried everything," he said during January’s Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "When you’ve tried everything and it doesn’t fix the problem, well you haven’t fixed the problem yet."
The team took a look at how they built cars from the ground up, and the veteran driver indicated the organization had found "earth-shattering things about the car" and what the team was doing wrong, and were "heading down the right path" to start the 2015 season.
The team also brought on Mark McArdle from Richard Childress Racing to lead the engineering side of things, while Kevin Kidd was hired from Joe Gibbs Racing to serve as Sprint Cup team manager.
"We could not find the problem," Biffle said of the team’s 2014 struggles during the Media Tour. "Who knows whether we have now, but we feel very strongly we have found some issues that were Rule 101."
Now five races into the season and it appears the team is still searching for answers and trying to figure out why their cars are not performing up to expectations.
"One thing I know it’s not is the engine," said Biffle. "Now, could it be improved to give us a little more speed or make a little more power? Sure, anything could, but Penske uses the same engine we use. So it’s kind of like we can check that off, so we know it’s not that. Then we start looking down the line. Is it suspension or aero? Well, it may be a combination of the two that we need to improve or it may be one or the other. We just keep looking for what creates speed in the car and just keep working in that direction."
While the Sprint Cup cars are struggling to keep pace, the XFINITY Series group at RFR already has one victory and a driver, Buescher, expected to challenge for the series title.
However, Biffle does not believe the success on that side of the garage will translate to success on the Sprint Cup Series level.
"That certainly is a boost for the organization that the XFINITY cars are running well. Unfortunately, they’re like black and white," he said. "They don’t have anything to do with the Cup side. The cars are completely different."
Despite the lackluster results, the frustration and the overall struggles to find speed, Biffle believes the team will show up to Texas Motor Speedway in three weeks ready to race.
"We’ve been working on that car since the end of last season and through the winter," he said. "We’ve already had one test with it at Charlotte and I know there weren’t fireworks going off after the Charlotte test, but still this car is our next version of what it needs to be or where we feel like we need to go. So I’m excited to get to Texas and get driving this car, so we can start working on it."
Yet Biffle was excited about showing up to Auto Club Speedway, a track Roush Fenway Racing has seven wins at, but the team unloaded poorly, struggled throughout the weekend and failed to put up solid results.
There is little indication the significant changes made during the offseason have made a major impact on the team’s performance. With a long season still ahead of them and more questions than answers, the Roush Fenway brigade faces a tough road while others continue to improve and win races.