The Hot Pass: Kenseth helping Roush's future
To describe Roush Fenway Racing's 2009 Sprint Cup season as rough is a polite assessment.
Between its five race teams, the company has scored just two wins all year — both with Matt Kenseth behind the wheel. But the last victory RFR celebrated was here at Auto Club Speedway 28 races ago.
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"We had a really good car here in the spring," Kenseth said. "We brought the same stuff back, but totally different theories and setups, and it seems like maybe the speed's a little better, but it hasn't been driving good yet, so we have some work to do."
The Roush organization is not sitting idle. Throughout the Chase, Roush will use the races to test its latest advances for next season. Kenseth will be the lab rat for many of the experiments — which have shown promise over the past month.
Roush couldn't ask for a better test driver than the 2003 champion.
Case in point, last week at Kansas Speedway Kenseth debuted a new car out of the RFR stable. Kenseth's crew chief Drew Blickensderfer was encouraged with the performance of the new car, even though the engine failed on Lap 134.
Blickensderfer insists the changes to the car came more from a new setup rather than a difference in the design of the car. He's already noticed how the changes to the car have reacted on the racetrack.
"Setup-wise it was closer to what we ran at the second Michigan — where we were running really well until the fuel mileage thing came into play," Blickensderfer said.
"At Dover we ran well with the same set of stuff — springs, bars and shocks-wise — it was that kind of equipment that we've moved on to. I think the company ran better last week than they had in four months."
Blickensderfer says the company is returning to the concept of unifying setups. Rather than going off renegade style and trying new techniques, the five teams have turned to working together again.
"We went on a path in December when everyone went their separate ways, trying to find something," Blickensderfer said. "Once we all started running better, we started coming back together again."
Blickensderfer is expecting to have the new Ford FR9 engine in the No. 17 Fusion in two weeks at Talladega.
"When we get the opportunity to test something, putting it in Matt's hands is always a good thing," Blickensderfer said. "He's one of the best out there in driver feel and comfort, and can feel changes as good or better as anyone out there. It's good for him to make decisions like that for the company.
"He's one of the smart guys that can actually drive fast, too. A lot can feel real well, but not drive fast. He can do both."
On a related note: Blickensderfer expects to return as crew chief next season even though Kenseth failed to make the Chase for the first time since the format was introduced six years ago.
Lance McGrew knew when he took the job as crew chief for the No. 88 and Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was going to be a challenge. Not only would McGrew have to answer to bossman Rick Hendrick, he would also be held accountable to Junior Nation.
Where did the years go? Dale Earnhardt turns 35, still pushing himself and feeling pressure to be a great driver,
Last week at Kansas, the No. 88 Chevrolet led 41 laps in the Price Chopper 400 before Earnhardt's engine gave way on Lap 232. But the radio chatter between the pair was more reminiscent of the communication between Earnhardt and his former crew chief/cousin Tony Eury Jr.
"It's getting easier for me to decipher what he wants in a car and he's having a little more faith in the changes that we make are going to help him," McGrew said. "It's just going to take time."
Although the Earnhardt and McGrew are just 16 races into their relationship both admit publicly the desire to continue on together next year.
"Ultimately, that's up to the big guy," McGrew said. "I think we've shown the speed. We just haven't been able to put the finishes together for one reason or another. I'm hoping that with a little bit of time that consistency comes for both of us.
New models coming
Ford will unveil its Mustang Nationwide Series car next week before the NASCAR Banking 500. The coming out party for the Dodge Challenger is expected at Talladega Superspeedway in three weeks.
NASCAR announced the actual four-race schedule for the new car will include the July Daytona date followed by August Michigan, September Richmond and Charlotte in October.
NASCAR VP of competition Robin Pemberton said the decision for the roll out came from a meeting in July where owners dictated the schedule with the variety of tracks and a month in between each venue.
"It gives the teams adequate time to take what they learned to prepare for the next race," Pemberton said. "There's reasonable chance it will keep the car build numbers down to two or three for next year.
It would not be a surprise if AJ Allmendinger is driving a Fusion before the end of the season. Once the No. 44 car flips over to Ford, it will remain a Fusion.
In addition to Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler is expected to drive a Roush-prepared Ford with a Yates engine at Talladega.
Whether or not RPM's proposed merger with Yates Racing goes through, team owner George Gillett has said his team will run Ford's next season.