Stalled Roush sees better days ahead for race team

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — It is apparent in their voices and explanations.

Roush Fenway Racing is enduring times most difficult in NASCAR.

Jack Roush, the 73-year-old engineer and entrepreneur who conducts a lot of his business from Livonia, is talking about an upswing, after perhaps bottoming out. But his words, and those of his remaining, seasoned driver, Greg Biffle, detail doubts, even as they profess hope.

Sometimes in sports, things go bad for a while, even for an owner who has enjoyed tremendous success racing, including two Sprint Cup titles, albeit 11 and 12 years ago, four Xfinity division championships and one in trucks.

Roush, the man under the famous Panama hat, may miss The Chase for the first time in the 12 years since NASCAR adopted the format.

It is, at best, a long shot for "The Cat in the Hat."

Heading into the Pure Michigan 500, Biffle lies 18th, 57 points out of the final qualifying spot, 16th. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in 27th and Trevor Bayne in 28th.

Biffle likely would have to win Sunday, or in one of the next three races, beginning at Bristol next week, to save the season. And, right now, victory is a difficult drive.

He qualified 20th on Friday.

Using the same engines with Team Penske, Joey Logano qualified 10th and Brad Keselowski 14th.

Joe Gibbs Racing qualified first, second and third, apparently having mastered the new "high-drag" aerodynamic package NASCAR adopted for Michigan International Speedway.

The gap to Roush Fenway is clear, and has remained stubborn.

"We feel the pressure, trust me," Biffle said after the first practice Friday, during which he and all of the other drivers clearly grappled with the new package.

But when searching in desperation for a win, the changing packages during the season is especially disruptive.

And that, in part, is what has happened to Roush Fenway Racing. They plainly have not adjusted to "the new car" NASCAR is racing, or the new aerodynamic packages it is initiating this season at different tracks, as readily as Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart Haas Racing.

Jack Roush walks in the garage area during qualifying for the Pure Michigan 400.

And, it is plain Roush Fenway is still struggling.

Working on testing

When it comes to two critical tests that demonstrate the racing capacities of the cars, Roush is still hard-pressed.

CFD, or computational fluid dynamics, is a mathematical simulation of the airflow around a vehicle.

"It's an imperfect science," Roush said. "At Indy, we miscalculated how loose it was going to be in traffic, and maybe had our drag a little higher than it should be, for the length of the straightaways.

"We've taken some drag out of the cars, for Michigan, and we're able to put it back in and get the downforce that goes with it, if it looks like we need it."

Another work still progressing is dyno testing.

The dynometer measures force, torque or power, and has been used in Formula One for years.

"We've just taken it for the first time, this year with Ford, and it's coming into its own right," Roush said. "The guys are getting confidence in it.

"We don't have one or two aspects of information it can give perfected yet."

Uncertainty is not good, coming out of Daytona in February and through the early season in March. But, by the second race at MIS, in the heat of August, with four races to go and a win of absolute necessity, ambiguity can ruin the best intentions.

Cycle headed up

And there is even more insecurity for Roush Fenway this weekend.

After a rough race for Biffle last week at Watkins Glen, the team fired his spotter, the guy aloft who helps guide the drivers around the track, helping avoid trouble and detailing the status of the race.

"You know, it's not one of the changes I was looking for," Biffle admitted. "But it was time to head down a different path, I think, for the company.

"It's not preferable to start out with a new spotter, especially with Bristol next week and four races before The Chase. But, it's business, and we'll work through it as best we can, getting up to speed with a new guy on top."

Despite all the problems, Roush insists he senses a coming change in fortune.

"We've been Cup racing here for 28 years and have had times when we had the hot hand and the combination everyone else wished they'd understood, or could have. And there's other times when we've had bad luck," he said.

"But we're on a cycle now that is on its way back up.

"You know, all of my programs have got potential. We've had 36 or 37 drivers in our cars over a period of time, 17 of them have won races. We're excited about our new rookie field, and Greg is cornerstone of what we've done.

"And I'm not going to give up and I don't think he's going to give up until we've won the Sprint Cup, as well."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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Race weekend

Track: Michigan International Speedway (oval, 2.0 miles), Brooklyn, Mich.

Distance: 400 miles (200 laps)

SATURDAY (CNBC)

8:30-9:25 a.m.: Practice

11:30 a.m.-12:25 p.m.: Practice

SUNDAY (NBCSN)

2 p.m.: Driver introductions

2:30 p.m.: Race