By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Roush Racing's five contenders cooperate - just not in the last laps.
Jack Roush's Nextel Cup operation has morphed into a five-car team with corporate meticulousness, collective energy - and the past two Nextel Cup titles. His crews share equipment, information and a gleaming shop which overlooks a retention pond.
The drivers share a laugh now and again. Sometimes they share the lead. After Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle claimed the top four qualifying spots Sept. 4 at Fontana, Calif., they allowed each other to take turns out front in the first 12 laps so each could collect five bonus points in the driver standings. Last weekend at New Hampshire, Martin finished seventh in a car borrowed from defending series champion Kurt Busch, who won there last fall.
That's team spirit.
But the line between teammates is always visible in a sport in which everyone is a competitor. Camaraderie and team goals matter to a point: the point where giving an inch would affect an individual's race. Jimmy Fennig, the no-nonsense crew chief for Busch, sees the line clearly from his perch atop the war wagon on pit road. Now that the Chase for the Championship has begun, he doesn't expect any help from such a competitive stable.
"I have to race those four for a championship, don't I?" he said. "We'll end up finding out where that line is on the racetrack. We got five in (the Chase), but we've also got to race the four other ones."
Biffle found that line at New Hampshire when he tried to run down teammate Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champ, for third place in the final laps. Kenseth wasn't in a sharing mood and Biffle had to tuck back into fourth or risk endangering his high finish.
Understanding the deal, Biffle laughed afterward, "I hate him."
"If it would've been any other time in the race he would have gone right by me, but right there you've got to race all you can for that position," Kenseth said. "And the way the leaders were going at it, I thought it maybe could've been for the win, so ... I just told him I was waiting for him to turn me."
Biffle enters today's race at Dover second in points, 20 behind Tony Stewart, with Kenseth fifth (50 off the lead), Martin seventh (54), Edwards ninth (109) and Busch 10th (142) after a major early crash at Loudon led to a 35th-place finish.
Though Biffle acknowledges that having four teammates in the Chase has its advantages, in this selfish sport he would just as soon be alone.
"You might say it would be better to have a guy with one car in the Chase and four teammates not in the Chase," he said. "Could they help you more - "Hey, pull out of the way because I want to finish sixth instead of seventh today?' - in this particular case, he's not going to want to do that. It's going to (mean losing) five points for him."
So even though Roush Racing constitutes half the playoff field, it's a self-serving bunch - just as it's supposed to be.
"Everybody wants to win and had all the ability to win," Doug Richert, Biffle's crew chief, said. "And I think the push of another teammate of yours is good because you can get slack, you can think you've got it figured out but in order to stay on top you need to keep striving for the best."
Roush, who has spent 18 years and millions of dollars revolutionizing the way Nextel Cup teams compete, says his drivers have free rein to do what they do best: compete. He just hopes any potential mayhem waits until the final quarter-mile of the season.
"They're their own men with their own cars and their own crew chiefs," he said. "There will not be any team orders. I have an expectation they will not wreck each other mindlessly or needlessly, but I expect them to race to win. If they roll up in a ball coming up in Turn 4 on the final lap, that'll be fine with me."
The key is healthy competition.
"We don't have rivalries here that are counterproductive," Roush said. "We don't have rivalries. The tire men all get along, the truck drivers all get along, the drivers all get along. In spite of the fact Kurt says he wants to leave he's respected by and enjoys and respects the guy he races with and everything is as normal. It's a time of harmony inside Roush right now."
Though Biffle openly groused for two years about the quality of his cars, all five teammates now agree they have full access to the same parts and technology. With each Nextel Cup car allowed five two-day and four one-day tests at tracks that host events, they cover the circuit and pool the data. It's up to each team to outdo others with the same resources. Therein, they say, you really find the smartest and the best.
"What we've done to get all five teams in the position where they are right now is not by hiding information from each other," Richert said. "We're operating strong as a crew. We have to continue to operate strong because we need to try to work on finishing one through five next and we can do it, I think, if we continue to work together."