Jack Roush (R) and one of his many projects, Travis Pastrana (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Poking Jack Roush with a big stick isn't nearly as much fun these days as it used to be.
He's too mellow right now.
Probably too PC too, like so many guys in the NASCAR garage have become.
Of course after watching Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs getting hauled to the NASCAR woodshed these last few weeks, Roush may have a point.
Gee, what can we get Jack fired up about?
This is a guy who's never shied away from a good fight, a good war of wits. A man who's never been shy about speaking his mind. A dude who even enjoys using a big stick himself at times.
But here today, Saturday afternoon, sitting up amid the engineers in the mobile control center for his multi-car NASCAR operation, and awaiting the start of the Southern 500, Roush refuses to bite.
Illegal Toyota engines?
Controversial penalties, and those judicial reversals?
Matt Kenseth, the sport's hottest driver this spring, though with arch-rival Joe Gibbs and Toyota, after so many seasons with Ford and Roush?
"I'm not going to give you anything controversial, if I can see it coming," Roush says with a laugh. "I'm sure you'd like something exciting...."
He just wants to keep his head down for the moment and his nose to the grindstone, and get Greg Biffle back up in the points.
Maybe Jack Roush should have signed Danica Patrick when he had the chance a few years ago (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course it's not just Roush who is suddenly gun-shy. Even Jimmie Johnson is noticeably cautious in choosing his words and topics.
Maybe it's that NASCAR's TV network negotiations have reached some sensitive point, and NASCAR execs don't want some off-target comment fouling the talks. Fox has already signed up for another 10 years or so, and the debate now is will CBS take the NASCAR 'summer season' and NBC the fall playoffs. ESPN, to hear talk, is all but out of the debate...and that could be a very sensitive aspect, since ESPN's current contract runs through 2014.
Whatever, the atmosphere in the stock car garage is rather strange, and seemingly strained, right now.
Keep your head down.
Which is what Roush is doing:
"We've had a shock absorber fall off Greg's car, which took him out of the top-five," Roush says.
"Then we had a wreck at Talladega....
"So we need to rebuild Greg's points position.
"But (rookie) Ricky Stenhouse is on a tear, and he's coming hard.
"And (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and Carl Edwards are figuring out how to make music together.
"We need to get Trevor Bayne, in Nationwide, up to doing what Ricky did last year. We've had a slow start on that. We need to figure out what we need to help Trevor. He's going to be great in this business, but we haven't had the start we'd hope for, and I know he's as frustrated as I am. That's one of our big challenges -- to reestablish our position in Nationwide.
"The year is definitely more than half full for me, and I'm anxious to get into this next stretch and see what we can do."
Matt Kenseth: after so many good years with Jack Roush, he moved on. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the things Roush and his men have to do is figure out how to match up against Matt Kenseth, who is sizzling.
But at least the tide, for Ford, appears to have turned. Earlier this year Ford teams appeared a bit off the pace.
Somewhere in the past few weeks, though, things have clearly picked up for Ford. At Talladega Ford men swept the top three.
"We did not hit on as many things as this new car needed at Daytona as our rivals did," Roush concedes. "The guys worked really hard for Talladega, and it looks like we've closed the gap. We've made a big gain on the restrictor plate tracks.
"We're still not up to speed to where I think we need to be on the mid-size tracks. We need to reestablish our prominence and dominance...and then I'll be happy."
Roush men led only one lap at Las Vegas, no laps at California, no laps at Texas. Things were better at Kansas, where Stenhouse and Edwards both led, a total of 45 laps.
The Texas situation in particular is striking, since Roush and his men have had almost a lock on that track for years.
"But there is nothing glaring....nothing bad enough that I can say it's clearly broken," Roush says of his mid-size-track operations.
"However I am anxious for us to do better on the mid-size tracks."
Saturday's Southern 500, on this 1-1/3-mile track, and the next two weeks at Charlotte should tell if Roush men have indeed improved.
Greg Biffle: needs to bounce back (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The short tracks? This should be a very sore point, for Roush and for Ford.
What's with Ford's lack of success on NASCAR short tracks? Since 2007, Chevy teams have won 36 short track races, Toyota teams have won 20, Ford teams have won but five.
"I think it's more a team-specific thing than a manufacturer-specific thing," Roush says. "We tripped the light fantastic on 1-1/2-mile tracks forever, and we were a little weak on short tracks.
"We've lost some of our luster on 1-1/2-mile tracks, and we're looking better on short tracks."
Edwards did win Phoenix. "Richmond was encouraging, and Phoenix was definitely encouraging. I'm anxious to take the things we learned at those two track up to Loudon (which is next on the Goodyear testing schedule, in fact, for the July 14th race)," Roush says.
"This business has rhythms; it comes and it goes, and you can't stay at your best forever. And if you keep making the effort, you won't stay in a bad situation forever.
"The strengths of the Chevrolet teams, the drivers and the crew chiefs, has been to address the challenges of the short tracks better than my teams have. And I'm anxious to try to fix that."
However the story of the season so far is Matt Kenseth.
After 14 years with Roush, Kenseth is now driving for arch-rival Joe Gibbs and Toyota.
It all clearly doesn't set well with Roush, but he is still not willing to say too much about Kenseth and Kenseth's hot start.
Kenseth's leap to take Gibbs' surprising offer last year to jump to the Toyota camp this season still hurts.
Apparently still hurts Roush too much to talk about: "I will have no comment," he says succinctly.
Trevor Bayne: slow start (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Roush's take on the Gibbs' engine controversy, and NASCAR's penalties, and the stunning appeals reversal, about the engine Kenseth used in dominating the Kansas 400?
Again Roush holds his tongue.
" I really don't want to comment on that," Roush says. "I will say that I believe there was no intent from the race team to do anything off-color; it may just have been an oversight on the part of the vendor that supplied the rods to TRD...and certainly by TRD in sending an engine with light connecting rods to a race team."
The penalties? The judicial review? The reversals?
Roush just smiles: "Given my history with Toyota criticisms, I'll no comment on that."
Wonder if that's a self-imposed moratorium, and something else.
The big picture in NASCAR engines, though, may have to be addressed, by someone eventually, it would seem. Not just because of NASCAR's out-of-date rules but because having so few engine suppliers seems somehow bad, even dangerous, for the sport overall.
If Roush is looking at options here, it's not clear.
Once upon a time nearly every NASCAR team had its own engine operation. However over the past few years the stock car racing engine business has become big business, an oligarchy now really, with only four Sprint Cup engine builders -- Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs.
Everyone in this sport today has to make a deal with one of those four -- and with their corporate backers, Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota -- to get engines to play this game.
While such concentration of power may be curious, the economics of that part of the business are simple.
"The engine thing is going the same way the car thing has gone," Roush says. "It's awfully hard to run a single-car team; it's hard to do all the development, and build the engines.
"Ford and General Motors are not inclined to have their own (in-house) engine operation; but Toyota does....though I am told it is not NASCAR's preference to have it work like that.
"If you spend X-dollars to develop an engine, it costs a lot less to produce twice as many of them than half as many of them. So you're able to spread the production costs over more units.
"It would take millions of dollars of capital investment to start an engine operation today. And then you would have to have a staff dedicated to that. And you would have all these race teams doing all the same things at the same time.
"So it makes more sense to have an engine operation work out the code for a particular set of hardware, and then build it for a number of cars, not just one car."
One downside of that, however, can be seen in the Gibbs-engine controversy.
NASCAR's rules in this area are far out of date. No longer are teams responsible for their engines, or even able to change them up. You lease engines from one of the big four (say $100,000 an engine per race) and must hire one of their engine tuners to handle the whole package, which prices out at $4 million or $5 million or so for the year. A lower end engine deal may be had for about $3 million.
Whether or not that is good for the sport is up for debate.
Whether or not that could even be changes is not clear.
Joe Gibbs: and what about those Toyota engines? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On light notes:
-- Roush, a remodeler extraordinaire, who enjoys building precise recreations of historic cars in his Lavonia, Mich., shops, usually brings one of those creations over to Michigan International Speedway each June for the Cup race.
But not lately.
Daughter Susan's drag racing project has taken that part of his time and energy. "That slowed down the restoration operation," he says. "But I've got a Cobra we're finishing. And we've got a drag car we're almost done with.
"But nothing's ready for prime time."
-- One of the enduring mysteries in this sport is that legendary highway from Jack's place over to MIS, infamous US12, with its sometimes humorous, sometimes maddening race day traffic over from Detroit to the Irish Hills.
Wonder why Roush and Ford men haven't provided enough political push to get US12 widened and improved?
Roger Penske and Chevrolet managed to put together a huge project to improve Belle Isle for Indy-car racing.
Shouldn't MIS rank in there some how?
If Charlotte can come up with a Jeff Gordon Expressway, why can't Michigan come up with a Jack Roush Expressway?
"You know US12 was built on the primary stagecoach route between Chicago and Detroit...." Roush says.
"They (the state of Michigan) could do better, and I don't know why they don't. They try....
"The people who do the best job with the least infrastructure are the people at Loudon, N.H. They really do a nice job."
Indeed, NH106, the link from New Hampshire Motor Speedway to I-93 & Boston, has been quite beefed up since Bruton Smith bought that track. (Still, it helps to know the backroad, through the woods...)
In other NASCAR news:
-- Goodyear's Stu Grant says he's decided on the Brickyard 400 tire package for the July race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Teams will run the same right-side tires used last summer; Nationwide teams will run the same left-sides used last summer but Cup teams will run a new left-side.
-- After the Talladega late-race, rain-delay, no-lights mess, NASCAR may well push tracks to install a Musco lighting system, not necessarily for night racing per se, but at least to provide breathing room for TV productions.
Talladega Superspeedway isn't the only major Sprint Cup track without lights. (Daytona installed its current lighting system for about $5 million about 10 or 12 years ago.)
And the $100 million state-backed project to upgrade Indianapolis Motor Speedway, just passed this week, is to provide lights at that 2-1/2-mile track for 2014 or 2015. That could offer TV and NASCAR the option of running the July Brickyard 400 in the cool of the night instead of the sizzle of the summer afternoon. (Lighting pit road could be the biggest issue there, as tight as that pit road is.)
Other NASCAR tracks without lights: New Hampshire, Michigan, Dover, Martinsville, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
(NASCAR, meanwhile, is rumored to be contemplating an 'Air Titan' clause in the next round of track contract negotiations, upping the sanctioning fees by maybe $100,000 a race for the novel compressed air vacuum system.)
Game face: Carl Edwards (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)