Annoyed Roush fires back
Racing's dominant team takes NASCAR's changes personally.
By BRANT JAMES
Published November 13, 2005
AVONDALE, Ariz. - For years, Jack Roush and Geoff Smith have pined aloud for all to hear. It wasn't so much a message as a question: With all we've done for this sport, why are these guys out to get us?
As powerful as Roush Racing has become in 18 years - five Cup, three Busch series and two truck teams; four championships, and a roster of multimillion-dollar sponsors - there was always the image of the diminutive Roush and team president Smith, with all their legalese and spunk, lorded over by the big, bad Mike Helton and Bill or Brian France.
Roush even referred to the trial balloon floated by the NASCAR president and CEO about limiting the size of Cup teams to four as "Get Shorty."
All the carping generally took a humorous tone because of Roush's often dark humor, and because if NASCAR was launching some plot against the owner of Nextel Cup's biggest team, it was making things awfully obvious.
"They've brought it out just at a time when we were starting our Chase," he said on Friday. "If they wanted to cause distractions to my teams, if they wanted to create anxiety among my drivers, if they wanted to create a question in my sponsors as to my viability and my commitment and the prospect for Roush Racing going forward, they would do exactly what they've done."
In this case, Roush's revamping of how the major-league stock car racing business is run may have put him in the way of NASCAR's attempt to continue molding the sport as it chose for much of its first 50 years.
"If we had a real theorist who came in here, it wouldn't take him long at all to figure it out," quipped Don Miller, president of Penske Racing South.
Frustration and disappointment aside, Roush admits he will have to continue to conform to NASCAR's whim. There is just no better game in town, he said.
Roush is not the first team owner to have felt victimized, and NASCAR's amazing penchant for fulfilling the story line of the week or seeing runaway races become last-lap shootouts has raised eyebrows. On Friday, Roush compared NASCAR to professional wrestling. Searching for examples of how the series uses well-timed cautions or penalties to guide the result has become a sort of fantasy sport for those in the garage and in the stands.
"The WWF has their ways of determining who is going to win and what the ranking is and maybe NASCAR behind the scenes is trying to do the same thing," Roush said.
Roush has a checklist. There was Mark Martin's unsuccessful bids for championships in 1990 and 2002. The first was foiled by a failed inspection for an illegal carburetor spacer. He was docked 46 points and lost the title to Dale Earnhardt by 26 points. The second was by another failed inspection, costing him 25 points. He lost the title to Tony Stewart by 38 points.
In 1999, Roush's Greg Biffle lost the Truck series title by eight points after being assessed a 120-point penalty for an illegal intake manifold the team said had passed inspection before.
After the Martin penalty in 2002, a day after Biffle won the Busch championship, Roush was still disconsolate.
"I feel like I'm 16 years old, a sophomore in high school and my most unfavorite teacher gave me a good conduct award," he said. "That's what a NASCAR championship feels to me right now."
It didn't stop there. Roush's Matt Kenseth won the Nextel Cup championship in numbing fashion in 2003 and the Chase for the Championship format was instituted for the next season.
Roush seemed to quell the conspiracy rumors forever when Kurt Busch won the team's second straight title in 2004, but a month after all five Roush cars earned Chase spots this fall, Helton announced a proposed limit on the number of cars a team can field. The limit, finalized at four Thursday and to be phased in through 2009, affects only Roush.
"It's hard for Jack not to take it personal," Smith said, "and hope when we put four guys in the Chase, we won't have to go to three; and put three in the Chase, we won't have to go to two; and get one guy winning championships all the time, they might have a rule that says we can only keep them under contract two years, then we have to give him up. I'm not sure. If it goes all the way to that, I'm pretty sure it was directed against us personally."
Though Smith said conspiracy theories are part of human nature, the team cap issue at least suggests his team has done things the right way.
"It's a great compliment in a back-handed way," Smith said. " "Gee, you guys seem to do everything maybe a little too well.' "
Busch, who is leaving Roush after this season to drive the No. 2 Dodge at Penske Racing South, said though Roush has weathered some odd circumstances, the team should concentrate on overcoming them rather than complaining about them.
"I think there's a general consensus and a feel that there may be something toward that (conspiracy theory), and Jack is feeling like he's been isolated from the group, but everything changes in this sport and you have to adapt to it," he said. "... They're going about business as usual and they have to deal with changes, everybody has to deal with changes, and it's easier to do it with a smile on your face."
Easy for him to say. He's getting his title and getting out.