Last season, the Jack Roush racing team rebounded from a year of mediocrity. Now, the sky's the limit.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003
DAYTONA BEACH -- A grin creases the face of wily Winston Cup owner Jack Roush as he considers which of his drivers should be among the favorites to win the 2003 championship.
Why, all of them.
Roush Racing's revival from a dismal 2001 was among the top stories in NASCAR last year. Veteran Mark Martin was the Winston Cup points runner-up. Matt Kenseth won a series-high five races. Fiery 23-year-old Kurt Busch won four and finished third in the standings in just his second full season. Jeff Burton, though winless, seemed to respond to a late-season crew chief change.
Hopes are high for 2003.
And with good reason.
"If I had to look and say which guys are going to reign supreme this year, it's awful hard for me not to pick Kurt," Roush said. "It's awful hard for me not to pick Matt. It's awful hard for me not to pick Mark. It's awful hard for me not to pick Jeff. I look at them, and I can start with any one, and it's not wrong."
Pride of ownership might cloud Roush's opinion, but it's hard to dispute the facts: 10 victories, 40 top fives and 75 top 10s made Roush the top multicar team of 2002. The question for 2003: Will Roush's 16th season finally bring him a championship?
Martin, who has been with Roush since the beginning, was a runner-up for the fourth time. Rejuvenated by young crew chief Ben Leslie, he begins this season with a confidence he has not felt in years. But that does not guarantee results.
"I feel real good about where I'm at right now and the people who are surrounding me, but that doesn't mean we're going to have as good a year as we had last year," said Martin, 44, of the No. 6 Ford. "We'll have to see what the competition does, but I feel like we can step it up from last year."
Kenseth, the 2000 rookie of the year, finished eighth in the standings with an average finish of 15.6 because of mistakes and mechanical failures. Consistency is his goal this year.
"I have to do the best job I can not to make the mistakes I made last year that cost us points, and the people building the pieces that broke have to do a better job of not breaking those pieces again," said Kenseth, 30, of the No. 17 Ford. "You really can't do a whole lot about luck, so my goal is to finish better on those days when we had 35th-place finishes."
No driver was hotter at the end of 2002 than Busch, who won three of the final five races. Busch had the misfortune of breaking into the series in Roush Racing's miserable 2001 season, but at the tender age of 24 is a title contender.
"I've gone through a lot of things that weren't familiar to me the past three years with racetracks and cars and media and competition," said Busch, who joined Jeff Gordon, Junior Johnson and Richard Petty as the only drivers with multiple wins before age 25. "It's been a lot to grasp, but it's going to be a lot of fun to compete and have that role of being a championship contender. We surely won't back down from the challenge."
Two years ago, Burton was considered a title contender, but he faces a different challenge for 2003. Winless last year, Burton must turn around the No. 99 Ford with crew chief Paul Andrews, hired late last season to replace Frankie Stoddard.
"I'd like to think we can turn our program around in a year," said Burton, 35. "We dug ourselves a pretty large hole. Maybe we can dig out of it in a short period of time. I feel like we have an honest shot at it, I really believe that.
"The little time that Paul was on board last year, I think everybody saw positive results from that. I saw a lot of gains and just a new attitude and new way of looking at things. Hopefully we can carry that into this year."
The Roush camp expands to five teams this year with the addition of the No. 16 Ford driven by reigning Busch Grand National and former Truck series champion Greg Biffle. He does not expect to compete for the championship this season but would like to be the first to win rookie of the year in all three major touring series.
"My most important goal of the season is to win rookie of the year," said Biffle, 33. "Other than that, I'd like to win at least one race and finish in the top 10 in points. Those are my goals, and I always set them high."