Jack Roush (L), with Greg Biffle (R) and crew chief Matt Puccia. The lead team for Ford as 2013 opens? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jack Roush says Daytona's SpeedWeeks will likely be filled with crashes unless NASCAR tightens up the new 2013s before the season opening Daytona 500.
However Roush says he senses NASCAR officials won't change much, if anything, until after Daytona.
Roush called the three-day Daytona test earlier this much "really inconclusive, because they didn't have an inspection process, and many of the cars were not with approved final hardware. They just didn't have the parts to build the cars correctly.
"Still, based on our better than average success there the last two years, I am guardedly optimistic we can return to that form.
"But I will not be surprised if we are not as good this year as we were in 2011 and 2012. Those were incredible years for us, in which if things had broken just right for us we could have won every restrictor plate race. And that's unusual for me at Daytona and Talladega."
Roush then warns "I think at Daytona and Talladega we've got trouble coming. With the 450 pounds of downforce they've taken off those cars, and the shift (in downforce) to the front, it will make a lot of cars hard to handle. Like Jamie McMurray in Daytona testing almost lost it, and Greg Biffle almost spun out in turn four.
"The cars are so close to not having enough mechanical and aero grip that the drivers are going to have a knife-edge window to deal with.
"The thing they could do real easy is to put more real spoiler on the car. And I would not be surprised if we don't have more rear spoiler for the Talladega race (May 5th).
"And I think it's going to be trouble."
Don't go below the yellow line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On Day Four, the final day of Charlotte Motor Speedway's annual pre-season media tour, Roush and Ford were center stage, in downtown Charlotte, assessing their game plans for the new season, and capping the session with a parade of cars and haulers around the city.
The big changes for Roush:
-- he's giving Robbie Reiser, the competition director and key cog in the entire operation, more duties and responsibilities;
-- he's paired veteran old-school crew chief Jimmy Fennig with Carl Edwards, whose slump last season was painful to watch;
-- he's moved rookie Ricky Stenhouse, a firebrand of a racer, up to Matt Kenseth's team;
-- and he's got wild man Travis Pastrana on board, running Nationwide races (in an oddly hideous painted car).
Travis Pastrana: pass Jack a Red Bull (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is Roush, at 70 now, still as fired up to do this another season? NASCAR's Sprint Cup tour is a 10-month grind that must be experienced to be fully understood. All those weeks on the road, plus testing, makes the sport a mind-numbing marathon, even for the most enthusiastic.
Roush smiles: "Young people are 'driven,' with their enthusiasm...and I guess people my age need to keep telling ourselves that we still have the drive for this, that we still have the commitment for it, that we still have the need for it.....even though it hurts some days to get up and go do what you have to do.
"But I still do it, and I still love it."
Maybe a couple of Red Bulls could take him over the hump on those off days? That's Pastrana's sponsor.
Roush laughed. "I haven't succumbed to Red Bull yet, but I'm thinking with Travis I could probably get a discount, and I should give it a try."
Ricky Stenhouse, one of Jack Roush's newest Cup drivers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And who came up that wild paint scheme on Pastrana's Nationwide cars? "Travis," Roush said with a grin. "I guess he figures that what his 'following' wants.
"Travis designed the car, we just painted it for him."
Actually Pastrana and his infectious spirit, plus a curious fan base, could be just the tonic for the Roush camp, to take the edge off things at times.
"Travis is going to be a lot of fun," Roush said.
Pastrana, as a Red Bull athlete, is charged with doing wild and crazy things. The company specializes in the outrageous. (It's Formula 1 operation is a world-wide headliner....raising questions about why Red Bull in NASCAR didn't do any better in that five-year program.)
In keeping with that part of the program Roush took Pastrana up in one of his P-51s. "Just before we got in, someone whispered in my ear 'You know you don't have to put a parachute on him, because Travis has jumped out of plane without a parachute.'
"After we did our thing in the P-51, I told him 'I guess you think that's the lamest thing you've ever done.'"
Roush again laughed.
Riding with Roush in a P-51 is an E-ride by any measure, of course.
Can new crew chief Jimmy Fennig get Carl Edwards back on track? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The 2013 stockers? "It's definitely starting over," Roush says.
"But based on what we saw at Charlotte, the new car looks to be more responsive to adjustment, and easier to organize for a particular driver or a particular track."
And it involves a major car building operation. Hendrick says he'll have 28 race-ready cars to start the season; Roush agrees "28 is the number.
"We've certainly been challenged by the late determination of some of the rules. And some of the suppliers have been challenged to get enough parts out."
In a curious point teams were told by NASCAR two days ago to be prepared for more car tweaks in the first few weeks of the season, if the sanctioning body thinks they're needed.
After six years of the almost infamous car-of-tomorrow (COT), a common-template design that has been so criticized both by drivers and fans, NASCAR will have race cars that are much more differentiated, with more character lines.
The 'character lines' issue and electronic fuel injection (in its second season now in this sport) are in direct response to Detroit car makers complaints.
"We were on our way to losing the manufacturers' interest if we didn't get more brand identification," Roush said.
Not sure how much teams really learned from last week's Charlotte test of the 2013s, not with 30-degree weather (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But there is much more to the 2013s than just the sheet metal (which for some reason has been in remarkably short supply, teams complain).
There is a new rear-end chassis design (in part to eliminate that 'trick' rear end used so successfully by the Hendrick teams, in part to give the cars more rear grip on the tour's smaller tracks).
And the cars are 160 pounds lighter.
At Daytona NASCAR has special rules limiting engine cooling and limiting rear downforce. That means drivers have to be careful with engine temperature in the draft. And bump drafting can be only done at your peril, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself showed in that Daytona test...which he called one of the most embarrassing moments of his career.
So who's the top Ford driver, who's got the top Ford team as the season opens?
Yes, Brad Keselowski, Ford's newest, is coming in after a dramatic championship run in 2012. And team owner Roger Penske knows how to make such big changes without missing a beat. (Remember Penske's 10-win 1993 season with Rusty Wallace and Pontiac, followed by a switch to Ford for 1994 and an eight-win season?)
Still, now with Kenseth gone and with Edwards trying to get back on track, the nod, at the moment, will likely be with Greg Biffle.
Biffle, bidding to become the first man in NASCAR history to win all three series championships, was hot enough last season to win the title, until an early fall run of problems.
Biffle and Kenseth dominated the tour's biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega. And Biffle, though drafting buddy Kenseth has moved to rival Toyota, still talks about their good work together. "I owe Matt for that Michigan win last summer," Biffle says.
And Biffle and Kenseth shared the top spot in the standings 21 weeks.
But something happened to Roush teams mid-season. Or rather maybe it was the new rear-end chassis setup that the rival Rick Hendrick teams began using so effectively (like in Jimmie Johnson's powerful performance at Indianapolis).
"It would be real easy for me to say it was the trick rear-end," Roush says. "When NASCAR allowed that additional skew to the rear axle, that certainly upset the apple cart, and gave the people who'd taken the initiative with that an advantage...and put the rest of the teams that weren't in on it from Day One at a disadvantage.
"But probably the big thing was just the lack of time-in-grade for Matt Puccia (Biffle's new crew chief); he was just getting his legs under him. He obviously did a lot of things right. But they made a (bad) car selection at one of the races, which was probably pivotal. I think they went the wrong direction.
"But that will all be better this year."
Charlotte under the lights, with the 2013s....here Ford's arch-rival -- Chevy's Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And maybe Edwards' continuing problems, quite unexpected, coupled with crew chief Bob Osborne's medical problems, which sidelined him, were a big factor too. Edwards never quite seemed on the same page with his teammates; and this after his stunning run in 2011.
Osborne is doing well now, Edwards says, and he's been back at the track, though not as a full crew chief.
"This is a real grind, and if you've got something a little off with your health, it can take the edge off your game," Roush says.
Now it's Fennig at the helm. Fennig's credentials go back to his early years working with Bobby Allison in the 1980s, and the man knows the sport. Fennig's notorious quiet nature still baffles, Edwards says with a laugh. "I don't know where the sense of humor is -- I texted him some jokes, but he never replied. Guess they weren't funny to him."
Yes, Fennig is a no-nonsense kind of guy. And Edwards says Fennig told him this season is all about winning, not about making headlines.
Fennig, who ran Kenseth's team last season, is a renown 'closer.'
"Carl and Jimmy are figuring out how to work together, and it's going to be great," Roush says.
So Roush has two veterans, in Edwards and Biffle, and two relative newcomers, in Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne, and a real wild card in Pastrana.
Jack Roush Jr. at the dais. Will he take a role in Roush Racing's NASCAR side (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the curious things about Roush Racing is Roush's own son Jack Jr., who is a solid road course racer, running this weekend again in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Jack Jr. turns 40, and works for the company, out of its Detroit shops; but Jack Jr. has so far seemed either reluctant or disinterested in taking any major role in the NASCAR side of the company. However Roush says Jack Jr., whose main work away from the track is in high performance parts, will have a major role in the company itself.
After his media whirl here Thursday Roush planned to fly to Daytona to watch Jack Jr. in action.
Cowboy Jack Roush, on the trail again (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)