Brooklyn, Mich. — Livonia businessman Jack Roush took a seat next to Greg Biffle’s transporter prior to Sunday’s race, talking about the season and the future of Roush-Fenway racing.
Roush, 72, desperately wanted one of his drivers to win the Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race at MIS, but it didn’t happen.
Roush-Fenway drivers weren’t in contention for the win either. Instead, it was the two top teams in the series battling it out, with Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon passing Joey Logano of Team Penske on the final restart and going on to earn his third victory of the season.
Roush drivers have won 13 Sprint Cup races at MIS, more than any other team. Greg Biffle, who won the June race last year at the two-mile superspeedway, gave Roush-Fenway Racing its best finish Sunday by placing 10th.
“I give myself about a B on the season,” Roush said prior to the race. “We’ve won two races (both by Carl Edwards) and been a factor in several others. We have found a lot of new information about the cars. The new ride heights (rule) changed in the cars this year. We didn’t get off the mark as fast as we’d like, but I think we’re all set now.”
Yes, Biffle’s 10th place finish was much better than the June race at MIS when Roush-Fenway drivers failed to earn a top-10 finish at the track for the first time since 2000. In fact, the team’s best finish in the June race was Biffle at 20th.
“The test helped a lot,” said Roush, pointing to the team’s test session at MIS last month. “We found a couple of things that we had misjudged on from an aerodynamic point of view. The aero balance of the car wasn’t what it needed to be and we got that corrected. Of course, the engines are always great coming from Doug Yates and the engine shop down south so the engines are not a question.”
Roush-Fenway had the speed during qualifying with Edwards’ run topping 206.115 mph, third-best behind Gordon’s track record mark of 206.558.
Roush-Fenway will be in a transition year next season as Edwards — who finished 23rd Sunday — announced last month he was leaving and is expected to move on to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Still, Roush is thrilled to have Biffle — who signed a multi-year deal a couple of weeks ago — as the team’s anchor for the next few years.
“Greg is signed, all set going forward and we have a lineup of exciting sponsors that are anxious to be with us and we’re looking very optimistic toward 2015,” Roush said. “We could have found ourselves in a 100-percent rebuilding program if we had three relatively inexperienced drivers, but Biffle provides an anchor for the rookies. Trevor (Bayne) is real enthused about coming in and Ricky (Stenhouse) is ready for his third year and I feel he’s going to be as good in this business as anybody has been and I’m anxious to see him mature and do what he needs to do.”
Of his loss of Edwards, Roush said: “It’s a time of renewal for us. We had a lot of time invested in Carl and Carl had a lot of time invested in us. It’s a disappointment, but this is a big-time sport and entertainment business and he had made his decision that he wanted to make a move like many big-time athletes do.
“Carl is a champion-caliber driver and the way they’ve got the Chase format set up this year I think Carl has as good a chance to win the championship as anyone else, and I think Greg would, too, if I can get him qualified.”
NASCAR has put a bigger emphasis on victories this season and drivers who win a race earn one of the 16 spots for the Chase, the opportunity to compete for the championship during the final 10 races of the season. Twelve drivers have won, including Edwards, with just three races left before the cut-off.
If the cut-off took place today, Biffle would hold the final wild-card spot with Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer earning the other three. All four are still in search of their first win.
Johnson has solid run
Hendrick Motorsports had a clean sweep this season at MIS with six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson ending his 0-for-24 losing streak at the track by winning the June race.
Since that win, Johnson had somewhat struggled with an average finish of 26th in seven races. He did have top-10 finishes at Sonoma (seventh, June 22) and Kentucky (10th, June 28), but finishes of 42nd, 42nd, 14th, 39th and 28th followed, including three DNFs.
Johnson suffered from a gear-shifter problem Sunday, but gutted it out for a ninth-place finish. He has three victories this season, matching Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (yet another Hendrick teammate), and Rochester Hills’ Brad Keselowski for series-high honors.
Johnson was also frustrated while racing Ryan Newman, saying: “Oh, it was just normal ‘Ryan Newman stuff.’ Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understands the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff. And I don’t want to take anything from what this awesome race team did.”
So, who would car owner Rick Hendrick be pulling for to win the series title?
“You really think I’ll answer that,” Hendrick said with a laugh. “Look, I don’t have any favorites. I would love to see Dale get his first championship. I would love to see Jimmie get number seven. I’d love to see Jeff get number five. I care about them all. We give them each the best equipment. There’s reasons I’d like each of them win it. Let the best man that does the best job end up with the trophy.”
Keselowski comes up short
Keselowski was hoping to get his series-best fourth win of the season and first Sprint Cup win at MIS. He was leading just after some of the frontrunners pitted with 32 laps remaining, but then hit the wall after suffering a right front flat tire. He finished eighth and is now third in points, 83 behind Gordon and 80 behind Earnhardt.
“That was a good finish to come home eighth after hitting the wall,” Keselowski said. “We had some pretty good adversity there with the blown tire. I am not sure why that happened. We didn’t have any indication of it and there was no real reason to. I was about the least aggressive you could be and did a run before that where I was more aggressive and didn’t even come close to showing signs of an issue. I don’t know. I think we just got a bad tire.”
Some less fortunate
Kyle Busch brought out the first caution when his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota crashed in Turn 1 on Lap 4.
Busch took his car into the garage, his crew worked on the right front suspension damage and got him back on the track.
Busch finished 39th, 41 laps back. It was Busch’s third straight bad race; he was 40th last weekend at Watkins Glen and 42nd the previous week at Pocono.
Things got worse soon after for a number of other drivers, putting an end to their chance at victory.
NASCAR put out a competition caution on Lap 20 to check the Goodyear tires, then on the restart, Danica Patrick’s Chevrolet got loose, hit her teammate Jeff Burton’s car which was ahead of her on the track, and set off an accident involving nine cars, including Kenseth, who suffered a flat tire.
And, though it was a cool day with a threat of rain, it got real hot for rookie Kyle Larson whose Chevrolet had a flat right front tire which sent him crashing into the wall, leading to a huge fire. Larson escaped out of the car and did not suffer serious injuries.
While Busch is solidly in The Chase field with two wins, the same can’t be said for Larson.
If the cut-off to the Chase were today, Larson would be on the outside looking in after his last place finish, putting him 24 points behind Biffle, who holds the final wild-card spot.
“I’m fine,” Larson said. “It’s just a shame. We were up there in the points battle so we have to work even harder now with our Target Chevy to try and get in the Chase.”