NASCAR: “Roushkateers” on rebound in Michigan qualifying

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This past June at their traditional stronghold of Michigan International Speedway, Roush Fenway Racing struggled mightily, with Greg Biffle leading the stable with a 20th place finish.

It was a loud reminder of how much RFR has struggled in 2014, outside of Carl Edwards’ two wins at Bristol and Sonoma that secured his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But two months later, the team’s seemingly in position to have a revival this Sunday at MIS.

In today’s qualifying for the Pure Michigan 400, Edwards, Biffle, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. followed up their strong practice speeds by making the final round of 12.

Edwards will start third on Sunday, while Stenhouse and Biffle won’t be too far back in 10th and 11th respectively. Those are good places to be in as they seek a payoff on their hard work in a test session at MIS last month.

“I believe at this point, we did the right thing,” Edwards said after qualifying in reference to the test. “I feel like we have a very fast car here, and yeah, it shows us that we’re doing the right thing. We’re working on things. It is paying off.

“Now, the race is another story. But we’re gonna enjoy this today. It’s been a lot of work for a lot of people and hopefully, we keep moving forward. We’ve been making progress and this is a good step.”

Edwards was one of several drivers to break the old track record in today’s qualifying session before Jeff Gordon rose up to take the pole with a stellar lap of 206.558 mph; Edwards came close in the final round by popping a 206.115.

The Missouri native credited Goodyear for being able to build a tire that can stand up to the forces endured as cars whip through MIS’ wide turns.

“As a driver…You start thinking about the fact that there’s just a little bit of rubber and some air holding that car up – with that much force on it – I have to stop thinking about it, because it’s pretty amazing,” Edwards said.

As for Stenhouse and Biffle, they were equally glad to see improvements.

“It has been awhile since we were able to put our [Ford] Fusion in the final round and it was nice to do that here at Michigan and it is nice to start the weekend off on the right note,” Stenhouse said. “Obviously we would like to be a bit higher up the board, but I will take it.

Said Biffle: “It is a huge improvement from June. We still have a little ways to go though. I didn’t want to come here and run 10th, but I felt like if we came here and legitimately ran 10th on speed then that would be a huge improvement. I am looking for pieces. We aren’t going to get it all at once. [But] I feel good about that. It is a start. We still have some to go and I don’t know exactly where the rest of it is at but we will keep working on it and see where we end up.”

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.