What’s next for Roush Fenway Racing?

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The news that Carl Edwards would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing, while not a surprise, does raise the inevitable question – what’s next for one of NASCAR’s flagship teams, that’s now hit a bit of a rough patch?

The short answer is rebuild. The longer answer is recover, rebuild and reflect on what’s happened to put them in this position.

While Hendrick Motorsports remains at the top of NASCAR’s heap, and any of Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing has a roadmap and an arsenal of talented drivers who could easily vie for Chase contention this year or next, Roush is down to one bullet left in its gun as it heads into a likely two-to-three year period of recovery.

The team that began with Mark Martin in the late 1980s and rose to become a power in Sprint Cup, ultimately expanding to as many as five teams, has suffered a slow, steady decline over the last five years and now stands at the crossroads of anonymity while it seeks to recapture the glory days.

There’s been instability in sponsorship, driving, and in overall performance level as the field around them has upped their game.

By year, Roush Fenway has won 3 (2009, 2013), 4 (2010), 5 (2011, 2012), and 2 (2014) races over the last six years.

It’s hardly bad, until you consider that in the team’s past, that number was nearly achievable by one driver in a season.

Edwards won nine times on his own in 2008 – the team won 11 races that season. From 2002 through 2008, Roush never won less than six races in a season (in order, 10, 6, 8, 15, 6, 7, 11 wins from 2002 through 2008 for a total of 63 of its 135 Cup victories).

Much has changed since – including a loss of many of its sponsorships, its personnel and its drivers. It’s changed names too – the switch from Roush Racing to Roush Fenway Racing, adding the new partner in John Henry to help keep the team afloat and running.

Gone on the driving front are Martin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, and as of the end of 2014, Edwards.

Gone too on the sponsorship front are Viagra, DeWalt, Exide Batteries, Sharpie/Irwin Tools, Crown Royal/Diageo, and more. They collectively activated and allowed for more funding to the team’s overall program, which could be used for testing and development.

The lone holdover is Greg Biffle (and sponsor 3M, which hasn’t yet renewed for 2015), a Cup veteran since 2003 who’s occasionally had title-contending potential but rarely the consistency in personnel and performance to sustain an entire season-long challenge. Only once, with six wins in 2005, has Biffle won more than twice in a season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., if anything, has regressed in his second year at the Sprint Cup level as he ranks 27th in points through 20 2014 races. Trevor Bayne, who replaces Edwards next year and brings back the No. 6 after a several-year hiatus, is still an unproven commodity at the Cup level despite his shock Daytona 500 win in 2011. Bayne is yet to drive a full season.

The leadership now on the driver lineup will have to come from Biffle, who’s never been “the lead dog” at Roush Fenway despite his dozen-year tenure with the organization. And he has the right temperament to guide the team through stormy waters.

“I had other options but I felt like I spent a lot of time there and we’ve always won races and I feel like we can win races again,” Biffle told Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, regarding his own contract extension with Roush Fenway. “The first half of the season has not been what we wanted. It’s no mystery.

“I don’t think that’s a reason to jump ship and say I’m leaving because we haven’t won a race and we’re not performing the way we should.”

Roush told Pockrass in the same article that this situation is not any different to when Biffle and Edwards were the new kids on the block circa 2004-2005, when Martin was the old guard. He feels confident in Biffle’s ability and the potential of Stenhouse and Bayne to achieve near the heights they have in the Nationwide ranks.

Robbie Reiser, the team’s vice president of competition and a steady hand in the organization since Kenseth was a Cup rookie back in 2000, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dave Kallmann that the 2014 struggles have purely been setup related.

“I would not look at the people issue as a big problem,” Reiser told Kallmann. “The guys have been working hard and giving 100% effort. I couldn’t ask for that to be any better.

“We haven’t hit on whatever we’re looking for. And one of those days we will.”

Meanwhile Stenhouse and Bayne need to hit their potential while other young guns like Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, and more seek to establish themselves among Cup’s elite. Logano’s already close and the other two have shown greater flashes this season.

On the surface it seems likely things will get worse before they get better for Roush Fenway Racing, but if they survive this dip and surprise with a performance enhancement in 2015, both they and the sport will be better off for it.

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.