Roush, Penske share admiration, fond MIS memories

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Jack Roush

Brooklyn, Mich. — Jack Roush was back at Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400 as car owner of the multi-car team of drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth.

Roush drivers have more wins (13) in the NASCAR Cup Series at the two-mile superspeedway than any other car owner.

And Roush has been rewarded for his longtime accomplishments in the series — which includes series championships in 2003 (Kenseth) and 2004 (Kurt Busch) — by being inducted as part of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class, joining car owner Roger Penske, four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon and late great drivers Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison.

“That’s a great honor and I put it right up there with winning the first championship with Matt (Kenseth) in the Cup series,” said Roush, the 76-year-old Livonia businessman. “It’s a great honor to go in with Alan Kulwicki and with Davey Allison and, of course, with Roger Penske and Jeff Gordon. That’s a great field of entrance this year and I’m just glad to be one of them.

"Roger’s had great success, certainly been a pillar of the community from an industry point of view. He’s done a great job with his companies in the Detroit area and the world and his dealerships are more numerous I think than any other dealership owner. It’s good to have my name mentioned with his with the inductees for this year.”

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Roush-Fenway Racing had a tough day at the track Sunday with Stenhouse Jr. crashing late and finishing 29th, knocking him out of the playoffs if the cut-off point ended today. It doesn’t end until early September with the Brickyard 400. Kenseth finished 33rd.

Penske was also at the track, traveling to MIS after the IndyCar race in Texas where he watched his Team Penske drivers perform Saturday night, including Simon Pagenaud finishing second to winner Scott Dixon.

Penske had a press conference Sunday afternoon where he showcased his Team Penske Hall of Fame, which inducted his good friend Walt Czarnecki and former NASCAR star Rusty Wallace, who competed for him in the 1990s. Czarnecki aided Penske’s venture into buying MIS in the early 1970s.

Penske enjoyed his 50th year of racing back in 2016 and it was then that he started his Team Penske Hall of Fame.

“I’m really honored, but more honored to be able to drive for you,” Wallace said. “I remember a long time ago you and I talked and I said I want to be a Penske driver. I had some other offers and said, 'No, I want to drive for Penske.' We had some rough times. I remember one time you got a little upset with me.”

“Yes,” interrupted Penske, “It was at Daytona.”

“And, I said, 'Don’t spin out on me now, calm down,’ and we went on to win a pile of races,” Wallace continued.

Said Penske: “I’m very honored too, by the way, to be into the NASCAR Hall of Fame so we’re all in this together.”

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Wallace won 10 times for Penske in 1993 when he finished second in the title chase to the late Dale Earnhardt, before winning eight more times in 1994, including once at MIS.

Still, it wasn’t until 2012 until Penske earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship with Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski doing the honors.

Team Penske had a 6-7-8 finish Sunday with Keselowski finishing sixth, followed by Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

Logano owns the lone Team Penske win this season, but Keselowski is sitting fourth in the points and Blaney ninth, both in great spots to make the playoffs that puts the top 16 drivers in the championship hunt during the final 12 races.

Roush's MIS memories

Roush talked about his numerous great memories of MIS, which is now known as NASCAR’s fastest track, with the superspeedway celebrating its 50th year.

“We won the 1,000th race for Ford Motor Company a number of years ago here in NASCAR and we won in the 100th year of Ford Motor Company as a company here and celebrated that with them,” Roush said. “We won 13 times here with our Cup cars. We’ve had 205 races here, including the trucks and the Xfinity cars.

“I believe at Michigan more than most places you can control your risks, you can manage the exposure that you’ve got. A lot of places you are so compacted by having only one line that everybody has to go through and as they dive for the line you get run over or you run over somebody that’s going slower. But here you typically can ride two-wide, three-wide in the corners and drivers, and depending on how much motivation he’s got, he can manage his risk in consideration of what his reward is going to be.”

Stenhouse earned a playoff spot for Roush last season, finishing 13th in points after winning at Talladega and the summer race at Daytona. He is currently sitting 16th in points with a season-best finish of fourth at Bristol, but would miss the playoffs since Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and is currently in 18th. Drivers owning a win are locked in the playoffs.

So, does Roush enjoy being a car owner as much as when he started 30 years ago with Mark Martin as his driver?

“The success I’m having or try to have for my motivations for the racing is I live vicariously through the success the youngsters are able to realize for their first win and their first championship and their first successes," he said. "I just enjoy being with them in the fact they are able to succeed.”

Roush had high praise for Martin.

“Mark won four races here at MIS for me, had a lot of success here,” Roush said. “In fact, when I started in NASCAR in ’88 I only had one driver and that was Mark. He was so productive here that he put down a good playbook in what the guys could expect from the race track and what they could do for setup. He was able to provide leadership for Matt (Kenseth) and for Greg (Biffle) and for Carl (Edwards) and for all the other drivers who have been there since then.”

Kenseth won the Daytona 500 for Roush in 2009 and then again 2012, his last season driving for the team before moving on to Joe Gibbs Racing. He lost his JGR ride to Michigan native Erik Jones this season and Roush brought him back to drive on a part-time basis in the No. 6 car usually driven by Trevor Bayne.

“Matt won our first Cup championship and he really brought us a lot of success,” Martin said. “We’ve got something a little off on our cars right now from a set-up point of view and he’s helping Ricky and he’s helping the engineers, what the opportunity is and what we need to do to get the cars better.”

Roush has been a longtime Ford owner, actually becoming the last Ford owner to win the series championship when Busch won in 2004. He is encouraged by Ford’s commitment.

“The big difference is the commitment that Ford has made to support the teams,” Roush said of Ford’s series-high seven wins, including five by Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing. “They’ve got more engineers and better engineers and they’ve got a great simulation and a double simulator, so Ford’s support really is responsible for all of the success that the Ford teams are having.”

Martin was also at MIS to honor the track’s 50 years.

When told that “it’s not too late to get in a car,” Martin joked: “Oh, yes it is!”

Martin, who won 40 races in NASCAR’s ultimate series, the majority with Roush, climbed in one of Michael Waltrip’s cars just five years ago at age 54 when he was just four laps away from becoming the oldest driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, leading the Pure Michigan 400 with four laps to go before running out of fuel.

It’s not like Martin didn’t take advantage of other drivers running out of fuel at MIS before, winning the June race in 2009 while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, after Jimmie Johnson and Biffle ran out of fuel — while both were leading — on the final lap.

Martin never won a series championship, but he finished second five times, including that 2009 season at age 50 when he won five races.

“We didn’t think we were going to win and it was pretty exciting,” Martin said. “That was sort of vindication for the 25 races I was leading when I ran out of gas in my career.

“It’s really good to be here. I love this sport. I love NASCAR, the people in it and truly miss my racing family, so it’s good to be back here and help celebrate 50 years of one of the coolest speedways on the circuit.”