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Those new front bumpers could make things aerodynamically interesting the opening weeks of the NASCAR season

   Ford's new Sprint Cup nose. And all those tricky decals....(Photo: Autostock)

   By Mike Mulhern


   When it comes to driver development, Jack Roush has made quite a name for himself in NASCAR over the years.
   This year Roush is putting money behind Chris Buescher, an 18-year-old newcomer who could make Daytona's ARCA 200 Saturday afternoon (430 pm ET) even more interesting.

   Roush has has a reputation for bringing up new drivers through the ranks, rather than pluck top talent from rivals.
   Carl Edwards.
   Greg Biffle.
   Matt Kenseth.
   But last season, well, Roush certainly ran through a lot of NASCAR potential….though who might stick is not clear.
   Betting is on Trevor Bayne to make it; he'll be a Cup rookie, with the Woods, under the Roush Ford banner, and he'll be running for the Nationwide title too. The Woods are getting a new burst of energy from Ford Motor Company.
   Roush and his men had a very curious 2010. But while they may have had a ragged start, but they sure finished fast.
   "Technically 2010 was a challenge at first, getting started," Roush concedes.
   Bad computer programs, he says:
   "The effort we'd made over the winter with our computer algorithms to support our simulations did not work out.  They didn't correlate with real-time, actual impact of changes to the track. 
     "We figured that out early on.  By Bristol (March) we knew we were in trouble. 
     "By mid-year -- by Chicago (in July) --  we had that sorted out; we got back on track. 
     "But we still had the problem of establishing correlation to where the guys would trust it.


     Hotshot newcomer Trevor Bayne. Chevy had him, but lost him to Ford (Photo:  Getty Images for NASCAR)

     "Of course by chase time (September), we were back on track…but we had lost some of the development benefit," Roush went on.
      "We finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the points (Edwards, Kenseth, Biffle). We're happy with that. That left us not only with momentum but having identified some things we need to work on."

    So this season?
    Every NASCAR team has a new nose, which could be an issue for some, particularly at Daytona in the season-opener.
    Roush says every one of his teams will have all new cars. And he says he's "realigned" the engineering staff, "separating the simulation engineering from the bread-and-butter mechanical, electrical and aerodynamic."
   Just what that might mean out on the track isn't clear yet, and probably won't be until the Las Vegas race March 6th.
   Edwards, winning at Phoenix and Homestead in the final weeks, and one of the hottest drivers the second half of the season, should be solid in the opening weeks….though there is a nagging feeling that unless Edwards and Roush get a new contract signed early on, that could be a cloud hanging over the operation. Certainly rivals would like to exploit that issue if they can, if only to slow down Edwards. So keep an eye on how Toyota and the Joe Gibbs guys play their hand with that long-proposed fourth Sprint Cup team.
   Kenseth didn't seem to get into the flow of last summer's Ford comeback, for some reason, and went winless. Maybe it's just that Kenseth doesn't like change, and that new chassis engineering might have been an issue.
   But Biffle and crew chief Greg Erwin were quick to pick up on it.
   David Ragan, the fourth man on the Roush roster, has yet to perform up to expectations, since being picked in late 2006 as Mark Martin's replacement. But key sponsor UPS likes him, and Ragan is only 25, a decided plus.


   Jack Roush: expecting a better start to 2011 than his men had in 2010 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Roush is about numbers. Not all about numbers, of course, but numbers nevertheless: Last year he had 298 team entries…a remarkable number. "I'm sure that makes us the biggest racing team in the world….in terms of entries for races in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and ARCA."
   With that, Roush men scored 10 wins, running his own record to 410 over the years since he went big. That's four Cup wins (and 25 top-fives).
   "Greg got his 52nd victory (at Kansas), and Carl got his 50th (at Homestead). That made an otherwise not great year look not so bad," Roush says.
   Four Nationwide wins, three by Edwards. And newcomer Ricky Stenhouse won rookie of the year, though he only finished 16th in points.
   NASCAR's Nationwide series has been well-used by Roush over the years – some smaller rivals might say over-used – to develop new drivers and crewmen, and sponsors too. Last season Roush ran six rookies through the Saturday tour; this year he says he will have Stenhouse and Bayne (also now a rookie on the Cup tour, with the Woods) running for the Nationwide title.
   Edwards, one of the sport's big guns, won't be eligible for the Nationwide title, though he still plans to run all the races -- probably -- because of NASCAR's new rules limiting drivers to running for only one of the three major national tours.
   One big issue this season not only for Roush but for every team owner – sponsorship. Retaining current sponsors, finding new ones.
   The economic climate has even long-time big guns like DuPont cutting back.
   Roush himself is sitting in at the negotiating tables right now. And he says "in our conversations all of our sponsors agree they continue to see NASCAR as a sport being very important to their marketing efforts, and Roush Fenway as an organization being a terrific management investment partner central to their commitment of retaining existing customers and to attract new ones."
    Still, Roush says good advertising space is still available, particularly on Edwards' Nationwide car: "It's about half-sponsored for half the races, and we may or may not run a full schedule with Carl, depending….
    "The challenge for all of us -- every team owner and all the drivers -- is to help identify new sponsors that can bring new energy in and celebrate NASCAR's bright future, so they can benefit from the enthusiasm that goes with NASCAR's brand-loyal fans."


    The King: Cutting teams from four to two, but he's got a couple of real live wires in Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    TV starting times for NASCAR's 2011 races are now official:
    -- Regular season points races in the Eastern and Central regions of the country will begin at 1 pm ET.
    -- West Coast events will begin at 3 pm ET.
    -- Night races will begin at 7:30 pm. ET, except for Charlotte's Memorial Day weekend 600, which will start at 6 pm ET.

   The sport's playoff series – the final 10 races of the season – will have different starting times, however:
    --  2 pm ET for Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Talladega and Martinsville;
    -- 730 pm ET for Charlotte's Saturday night 500 Oct. 15th;
    -- and the last three races, at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead-Miami, at 3 pm ET.

    The first Sprint Cup event of the season, the Bud Shootout Saturday Feb. 12th, will go green at 8:10 pm ET. The Feb. 17th twin 150s at Daytona are set for 2 p.m. ET Thursday Feb. 17th.

   Fox will carry the sport's first 13 Cup events, concluding with the new Kansas race June 5th.
   TNT will then carry Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Daytona, Kentucky, and New Hampshire in June and July.
   ESPN will kick off its half of the Cup tour with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and will carry 14 of the year's last 17 events, with ABC carrying the other three Cup events, the Saturday night races at Bristol in August, at Richmond in September, and at Charlotte in October.

    Perhaps noteworthy, ESPN will not be carrying the full Nationwide tour. Fox' Speed will carry the April 29th Richmond event.


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