While Jimmie Johnson will make a run for his fourth consecutive Cup championship on Sunday, his competitors at Roush Fenway Racing will try to preserve a long-standing winning streak of their own.
Since 2004, a Roush driver has won the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway every year. Greg Biffle captured the checkered flag in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Matt Kenseth in 2007 and Carl Edwards in 2008. The organization’s Fords have proven dominant in a race that continues to be billed as the Ford 400, shutting out the likes of the Chevy-backed powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports and the fast racecars of Joe Gibbs Racing, who switched to Toyotas last season.
However, a victory at Homestead may not be a given for the Roush camp on Sunday. The team has been floundering in 2009, a far cry from previous seasons.
Among its five drivers, Biffle, Kenseth, Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan, the organization has just three wins: Kenseth’s back-to-back victories in the Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500 in February and McMurray’s surprise win at Talladega last month. Two of its five drivers, Biffle and Edwards, qualified for the Chase.
Compare these numbers with 2005, when the team had all five drivers in the Chase and racked up 15 wins, and 2008, when Edwards won a season-high nine races, more than Kyle Busch with eight and three-time champ Johnson with seven.
Kenseth, who started off the year with a bang, entered into a slump that cost him a spot in the Chase, the first time he had missed the playoffs-style system since it was put into place in 2004, after his own Cup championship in 2003. With one race to go, Kenseth has seven top-5s and 12 top-10s in 2009, and sits 14th in points.
McMurray, whose last win prior to Talladega came at Daytona in July 2007, was told by the Roush organization during the summer that he was free to look for another ride for next season. NASCAR had mandated that the team scale back to the four-car cap by 2010. Last week, after much speculation and likely fueled by the Talladega victory, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing announced McMurray will take over the reins of the No. 1 car, which Martin Truex Jr. will vacate after Sunday’s race. The deal reunites McMurray with Ganassi, whom McMurray drove for prior to joining Roush in 2006. In addition to his Talladega win, McMurray has 1 top-5 and five top-10s this season and occupies the 22nd spot in points.
As for the other drivers in the Roush staple, none had as many expectations placed on them as Edwards did for 2009. After his nine wins and second-place finish to Johnson in the points in 2008, Edwards was expected to rival the Hendrick Motorsports driver for the championship. But by the time the Chase got under way, Edwards was winless, nowhere near the threat he had posed the previous year. Edwards sustained a broken right foot during a game of Frisbee in September, which may have derailed any chance of catching up to Johnson. With seven top-5s and 13 top-10s, Edwards sits 11th in points, 520 points behind Johnson. As of today, he would not make it onto the stage at the end-of-the-year Cup banquet in Las Vegas.
Biffle finished third in points last season, behind his teammate Edwards. Both of his victories in 2008 came at beginning of the Chase, winning the first two races at Loudon and Dover. However, flash forward to 2009 and Biffle stands winless, with 10 top-5s and 16 top-10s. He occupies 7th in the points, 321 points out.
David Ragan narrowly missed the Chase in 2008 and finished the season 13th in points, bolstering expectations for a 2009 Chase berth. However, Ragan has struggled this season, with just two top-10s, and sits 27th in points. Before the summer’s announcement that Ragan would stay on as the fourth team in Roush’s staple for 2010, speculation centered on him and McMurray as the drivers most likely in trouble of losing their rides.
Friday’s qualifying session at Homestead offers a mixed view of the team’s chances for victory on Sunday. Biffle was the highest-qualifying Roush driver and will roll out 8th. McMurray starts 11th. Edwards, Kenseth and Ragan have their work cut out for them, starting 24th , 35th and 41st respectively.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Roush? Can the organization find its way to Victory Lane at Homestead and close out an otherwise dismal season on a high note?
With the team’s caliber of talent and history, it’s certainly possible. In 2006, after missing the Chase, Biffle won his third consecutive Homestead race, his second win that season. Kenseth’s Homestead win gave him his second victory in 2007.
Three of Kenseth’s seven top-5s this season have come during the Chase; he is also the Roush driver with the most top-5s in the last nine races. Homestead presents McMurray with his last chance to win for Roush, and offers Biffle, Edwards and Ragan one last shot at a victory this season. A trip to the winner’s circle for any of these drivers would give them confidence and momentum heading into 2010.
Whether or not a Roush driver does end up in Victory Lane on Sunday, one thing is certain: the organization will be working feverishly in the off-season to return to championship-winning form.
How do you think the Roush drivers will fare on Sunday? Which one do you think has the best chance at a victory at Homestead? What kind of changes do you think the team needs to make for next season? Please leave your comments below.