Talladega NASCAR win puts Roush Racing resurgence ahead of schedule
By winning on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Ricky Stenhouse offset three years of turbulence, struggle and frustration at Roush Fenway Racing.
The triumph was his first personal breakthrough in 158 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts but was also the first victory for Roush in 110 events, dating back to a Carl Edwards victory at Sonoma back in 2014.
Even back then, there were signs that RFR was starting to fade out of prominence, but there was no way to predict just how far into obscurity the former Ford powerhouse would fall. Since then, Edwards bolted to Joe Gibbs Racing while Greg Biffle retired with a season still remaining on his contract.
Meanwhile, Biffle, Stenhouse and teammate Trevor Bayne all failed to crack the top-20 in the championship standings last season, a stark contrast to 2005 when Roush placed five teams in the 10-driver Chase for the Championship.
To say the mighty had fallen would be a gross understatement.
And yet, after three days at NASCAR’s biggest track, Roush Fenway made a statement that it wasn’t simply going to fade away — at least not without a fight. Stenhouse captured the pole, survived an 18-car crash, and effortlessly drove by Kyle Busch on the final lap to solidify the reemergence of a NASCAR mainstay.
“It doesn’t get any sweeter,” Stenhouse said. “You know, I look at our first 150 (races) or so, and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano’s. He’s had 300 races. The first 150 weren’t great, the next 150 were. Hopefully this is a start of that.
“A lot of hard work from (crew chief) Brian Pattie, Steve (Newmark, president) and Jack (Roush, owner) and everybody at the shop to continue to put race cars out there and continue to give us the resources, and man, it’s awesome to finally finish it off.”
While it would be easy to dismiss the accomplishment as a restrictor plate fluke or one-off, there’s plenty of evidence to support this actually being the start of a Roush resurgence.
Stenhouse and Bayne are 12th and 16th in the championship standings, both in position to make the playoffs. Bayne has been inside the top-15 all season but getting caught up in the Big One set served as a slight set-back.
Stenhouse has actually used the perception of Roush to fly under the radar, fans often not realizing how competitive the No. 17 has been this season. This truly appears to be a top-10 operation. In fact, Stenhouse has posted top-10s in five of his past seven starts and just missed a sixth such result with a 14th at Texas.
And you could argue that a superspeedway pole is perhaps the tallest testament to the aerodynamic advancements the team has made over the past calendar year.
So how did Roush jump 10 positions up the grid? It starts at the top. Under the leadership of Competition Director Kevin Kidd and Operations Director Tommy Wheeler, Roush loaned out its third charter and development driver Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty Racing, streamlining its focus to just the No. 6 and No. 17 entries.
Legendary crew chief Jimmy Fennig was given a speedway program assignment while veteran engineer Mike Kelley was assigned to an aerodynamics-minded role. Roush Fenway needed to be re-created from the ground up and that takes time.
But any turnaround would have to begin with Stenhouse, the two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and future cornerstone of any competitive version of Roush Fenway. Jack Roush and team president Steve Newmark never lost faith in the 29-year-old and never attributed their struggles to their young driver.
Roush had faith that Stenhouse would be ‘the guy’ once the team was ready to perform.
“Ricky demonstrated before he came to us six or eight years ago that he was a champion,” Roush said. “He’d won at everything he’d done … and he won the second year in the XFINITY Series and the third year consecutively, won the championships.
“I just needed to find the speed in the cars and get the organizational prowess to be able to do timely development that was acceptable to NASCAR, and I knew it would come together.”
Even with Roush starting to show signs of life, a restrictor plate victory still feels like an accelerated achievement. The team isn’t quite ready to begin competing for wins on a regular basis, but Roush believes the victory will allow them to take another big step before the playoffs begin in September.
After all, Stenhouse is now locked into the Round of 16 and can spend the remaining 16 races in R&D mode.
“But I knew that we had the right mix of people in the right places this year, it would gel and we’d have a little bit of good fortune that we would win races, and we’ll win a race with Trevor before the year is over unless I miss my guess,” Roush said. “But hopefully we can get ourselves ready for this last 10 races to make a championship run. That’s what I’m thinking.”
This victory puts Roush ahead of schedule so they’re already playing with house money this year.