Ford teams showing signs of strength once more
Despite all the change in NASCAR over the past decade, there have not been dramatic differences within the Sprint Cup tour this season.
With the Cup series just beyond the halfway point, it’s the same organizations in the Chase Zone with not a lot of big surprises.
Perhaps the greatest contrast this season is the number of different winners in the first 19 races. In 2009, 11 different drivers visited Victory Lane up to the Chicagoland race, including three first-time winners. This year, there have been eight winners in the Cup division and no newcomers.
Of the drivers that had won to this point last season, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are still looking for their first wins in 2010.
Here are five trends that could affect who the winners will be in the final 17 races of the season.
1. Under the Blue Oval — As of Saturday night, it’s been 22 races since Ford has won at the Cup level. All season long the question has been asked of the Roush Fenway racers, ‘What’s wrong?’
Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 Cup championship and has been with team owner Jack Roush throughout most of his NASCAR career, admitted on Friday that the company “had a lot of change over the last couple of years,” but he didn‘t “have the answers."
“I don’t feel like we are making gains,” said Kenseth, who is currently eighth in the standings. “I feel like we are going backwards.”
One of those “changes” include a new engine, the FR9, which was introduced prematurely in January of 2009 but only ran on a limited basis. It’s been only recently that the engine has been available to both Roush and Richard Petty Motorsports drivers.
There are still many unanswered questions in the RPM camp concerning drivers and sponsors moving forward. However, the inclusion of RPM has given the Roush camp the opportunity to have an exchange of ideas — including mechanical and aerodynamic principles which have been shared between the two organizations. The first major gains of that development were witnessed Saturday night when six Ford drivers posted top-15 finishes.
After finishing 13th at Chicagoland Speedway, Kenseth appeared more optimistic. Kenseth, who is on his third crew chief this season, has seen his own team pick up in the last three weeks since crew chief Jimmy Fennig has come on-board and had a chance to work with team engineer Chip Bolin.
“It seems like we ran better there (Chicagoland) on average than what we’ve been running,” Kenseth said on Sunday. “That was encouraging. I was probably one of the worst cars, but we just showed up off, and it took us a while to get where we needed to be.
“The best we were was 13th. Nobody could pass last night. I think we had our car good enough at the end — if you had picked it up and put it fifth, I think we could have run fifth. So I was encouraged about that, and all our cars ran better. But the cars that were up there stayed up there, and it was really hard to go back and forth.”
Jamie Allison, the third director of Ford Racing since June of 2008, lists three areas he believes will rally the program moving forward — the new engine, the development of simulations and teamwork. Allison saw “small measures of success” at Michigan recently when five cars finished in the top 15.
Allison says “there’s a lot of sharing that goes on between the Ford teams” but it’s the different set-ups and computer simulations each organization uses that distinguishes that team on the race track.
“I believe we’re in the midst of an improvement plan that’s showing it’s benefits in episodes and eventually will show it’s complete impact over time," he said. "We don’t have that much time; we have to get on it very quickly.”
With just seven races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and with Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle hanging on in the bottom six positions of the top 12, now is the time for Ford and Roush to get their acts together.
2. What's going on at Gibbs? Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin posted seven of the series first 15 wins. Busch and Joey Logano finished in the top 20 at Chicagoland — but Logano didn’t finish on the lead lap. And while Hamlin salvaged an eighth-place finish on Saturday night and moved up to fourth in the points standings, he was never really a factor in the race.
Hamlin doesn’t feel the team is in a slump, though. He does feel the team is off a bit on speed, but the recent tracks simply don’t suit his style.
“We had a superspeedway race, which really doesn’t equate to normal racing,” Hamlin said. “We had Loudon, we didn’t perform well. The 18 (of Kyle Busch) performed decent. I think it’s just, everyone works, and nobody stays on top forever as far as you’re not going to be the best car every week.
“We’ve been working on some different stuff within our race team over the last few weeks. Other than that, it’s just more coincidence than anything else. A road course was in there, too. This is the first race (Chicagoland) back to the normal racing like we’re used to other than Loudon.”
Certainly, the No. 11 team is testing set-ups in preparation for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. While neither Hamlin nor Busch appear to be in any jeopardy of falling out of the top 12, neither driver wants to lose the momentum they had established in the early going with the championship on the line.
3. Can Harvick go the distance? Kevin Harvick has lived a charmed life this season and has led the points for the last 10 races. Harvick never got up to speed at Chicagoland — one of his best tracks on the circuit — and was further hampered with fuel pump issues. Harvick’s 34th-place finish, his second worst of the season, enabled Jeff Gordon to cut the No. 29 team’s advantage from 212 points to 103.
Still, Harvick knows he “has a strong race team” and the opportunity to redeem himself at the Brickyard, where he won from the pole in 2003 and has an average finish of 10.8. Without the contract talk distractions, he should be considered a favorite going into Indy.
As a whole, Richard Childress Racing has made the greatest strides in the last year. All three of the organization's teams are competitive on a weekly basis. Despite Harvick’s problems on Saturday, both Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer finished in the top 10. Bowyer’s fourth-place finish, his first top-five since the Daytona 500, enabled him to move back into the Chase Zone.
Although Burton and Bowyer have yet to win this season, both drivers appear on the verge of breaking through. And with a supporting cast this strong, Harvick could be looking at his first Sprint Cup title.
4. The Challenger — No one can ever count Jimmie Johnson out as a championship contender, but Jeff Gordon is emerging as the favorite at Hendrick Motorsports right now.
And the four-time champ has never sounded feistier.
Still, what Gordon is missing right now is wins. With an 11.2 average this season, the No. 24 has proven its consistency. There’s no doubt Gordon will be in the Chase, but without bonus points from victories, Gordon will be shuffled to the back.
Gordon has won at the seven remaining tracks before the Chase. Indianapolis, where he has four wins and an average finish of 8.6, will be a huge test for Gordon and the No. 24 team. A victory there could be the catalyst Gordon needs in his drive for five titles.
5. Nice guys do finish first — David Reutimann proved his staying power on Saturday night with his second victory on NASCAR’s top tour in his 118th start.
With a new contract three-year contract in place, it’s another step in solidifying Michael Waltrip Racing among the more established organizations in the Cup garage. Certainly, it has not been an easy road for this organization. Lately, there have been engine issues with the Toyota Racing Development program, but if Chicagoland was any indication, those weaknesses have been worked out.
Don’t mistake Reutimann’s self-deprecating personality as pessimism. The guy is simply beyond humble which is what made “The Franchise“ moniker so amusing. And with Reutimann as MWR’s senior racer, it will provide a solid tone moving forward.
Following Reutimann’s second victory — and the second win for MWR, General Manager Ty Norris said it best.
“David came when we had nothing,” Norris said. “When I say ‘nothing,’ I mean nothing. David was there. When we had almost next to nothing, Rodney (crew chief Childers) came. So these guys not only deserve the contract, but they’re part of the foundation that built us to be able to sit here (at the winner’s table) tonight.”