What a difference a year makes

Roush Racing was riding high last year with five Nextel Cup drivers in the Chase. This year, it's a slightly different story.

Published September 17, 2006

One year ago, Roush Racing was poised for domination. By qualifying all five of its entries for the 10-car Chase for the Championship, the team was in position to win a second straight Nextel Cup title, impose its corporate model on all the good people of Earth and reshape life as we know it.

Or so went the reaction in the garage and apparently in NASCAR's boardrooms. Three weeks later, NASCAR announced its intention to implement a rule to limit the number of cars one owner could field in the series - four - affecting only the bespectacled, Fedora-wearing Jack Roush.

It was, in the assessment of the 5-foot-and-change team owner, "Get Shorty."

Ultimately, Roush's cars tied for second (Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards), placed fourth (Mark Martin), seventh (Matt Kenseth) and 10th (Kurt Busch) in the standings, but Tony Stewart won the championship. There were apparently some things Roush could not control.

A year later, with just two Roush cars beginning the Chase today at Loudon, N.H, the vagaries of racing have continued to do what Roush thinks NASCAR tried to legislate in the fall. He won't gloat about losing three chances at a third Nextel Cup title. But sitting in the lounge of Mark Martin's hauler last weekend at Richmond, Va., he seemed at least comforted that forces he could accept had short-circuited this season for Biffle, Edwards and Jamie McMurray, who replaced Busch. His 2005 season was still a masterstroke, he said, in a sport so unforgiving and so dependent on forces beyond control.

"I had a sense of foreboding (this time last year)," Roush said. "If there was a great deal of luck involved and things that happened beyond your control that worked out okay for you, then those things will cycle and you have to give it back. And this year we had to give it back. It wasn't unfair. It was just fine."

NASCAR's rules, well, that's another matter. Although he will not have to eliminate a car, according to the rule, until one of the sponsorship contracts expires, he still feels singled out.

"There was certainly an anticipation that a number of things NASCAR has done in the last several years have been to counter what this race team has done," Roush said. "I have felt I was discriminated against, and I will feel that way until someone makes a better argument, and I will give them every opportunity to convince me otherwise."

So far, the car cap has not been the most troublesome new rule for Roush. New testing guidelines have hurt worse because large teams benefited most under the old system in which allotted days per team could be used at any track that holds a Cup event. Roush could cover the entire circuit with its five-car fleet and pool data for its entire organization. Now, all teams are allowed two test days at six preset sites, and other big teams such as Hendrick Motorsports' four-car operation adapted faster. Biffle said that slowed his team's adjustment to a new, harder tire compound used this season.

So Roush regroups. Biffle and Edwards are using the final 10 races to prepare for 2007, each bolstering themselves with evidence that much of went wrong this season was out of their control. Yes, Biffle ran out of gas three times in the first 10 races, and Edwards effectively ended his Chase hopes when he retaliated against Stewart by bumping him under caution at Pocono. But Biffle was victimized by uncharacteristic parts failures, and Edwards was a long shot for the Chase until Stewart's revenge slam on Clint Bowyer wrecked him, too.

"You get involved in a wreck or two, you have two engine failures, which last year I don't think we had an engine failure in our whole universe," Roush said.

Biffle and Edwards have tried their best to find ways to turn this into a starting point for 2007, but after becoming two of the sports' stars last season, they seemed to find their sudden lack of demand awkward. Biffle had said, after all, that those who don't qualify for the Chase are "nobody" because attention switches to the qualified 10. Thumbing through a racing publication before the drivers' meeting at Richmond, Edwards feigned a game face when asked why the soft sounds of Sarah McLachlan were being piped through overhead speakers.

"If I wasn't running well or if we weren't performing well, I would feel a lot differently, but right now the biggest thing is for us not to equate poor results with poor performance," he said.

Biffle and Edwards agreed there was no common theme within the organization to explain the three-car drop off this season.

"A lot of it was all the rest of the teams are a lot better this year," Biffle said. "(Richard) Childress (Racing) clearly took two of the spots. Last year that was me and Carl. They weren't even in the hunt, so they've gotten a lot better. The Gibbs (Denny Hamlin) car, that team has strengthened a bunch, and they've gotten a lot better. The (Kasey Kahne) team has gotten a lot better. I think the rest of the competition has just caught up to us more, and this tire combination we have this year, we're not as good as we were last year. We're off just a little bit."

Total domination will have to wait a bit longer.