Roush Fenway Racing making noise
Despite that little hiccup with the Carl Edwards sideshow at Atlanta, things are looking up for Roush Fenway Racing and the Ford group. Tempers and paybacks aside, RFR is back.
Matt Kenseth ranks second in the Sprint Cup standings, and Greg Biffle is third after the first four races. Edwards is a misleading 20th after his tussles with Brad Keselowski led to a 39th-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Edwards hadn't finished worse than 13th before that incident.
Only David Ragan, who doesn't have a top-15 finish, has struggled. But Jack Roush's stable appears close to returning to its traditional status as a serious championship contender.
Roush made sure to point that out last week in his statement after Edwards was given a three-race probation for wrecking Keselowski.
"Missed in all of this was a really strong performance by Roush Fenway and the Ford teams in general," Roush said. "We are eager to continue to build on that moving forward."
That's not your typical PR spin to make a positive out of a negative. It's 100 percent true.
Biffle has four consecutive top-10s to start the year. Kenseth has finished seventh or better in the three races since Todd Parrott took over for Drew Blickensderfer as the crew chief for the No. 17 Ford.
Crew chief changes always are risky, even if it's only one race into the season. But Kenseth couldn't be happier with the attitude change the veteran Parrott has brought to the 17 team.
Just one week into Parrott's leadership, Kenseth said he already noticed a big difference in the crew.
"I can tell everybody on the team, including myself, really respects Todd and his experience and leadership abilities," Kenseth said. "It's been fun. He's got a lot of enthusiasm, and he's really fired up about doing it again.
"Todd has been around a long time, and he's obviously won a lot of races and a championship [with Dale Jarrett in 1999]. I know the last couple of programs probably didn't go the way he hoped, but I'm pleasantly surprised by his excitement level to have another shot at being in a competitive program and trying to run for a championship."
Kenseth was the runner-up at Atlanta, his best finish ever on the 1.5-mile oval. And you know things are going well for Biffle when he's angry about finishing eighth at Atlanta, believing the overtime restart kept him from finishing in the top five.
"I feel like we've gained on it over the winter, and our cars seem to be running better," Biffle said. "We have been a top-5 competitor every week, and that's what it takes to win championships. We feel like we're here to stay in the top 10, and we just hope we make enough noise on the track that they continue to recognize us and talk about us."
Biffle said at Daytona that he was certain RFR has benefited from the Richard Petty Motorsports merger with Yates Racing. RFR and Yates build engines together, but Yates had two uncompetitive cars last year.
Even though Roush was forced to downsize this year from five cars to four, the alliance has gone from seven cars to eight with RPM becoming a Ford operation in the Yates merger.
RPM has improved with the Roush/Yates Ford engine program, and RFR has improved by using some of RPM's chassis setups and its aero-program expertise.
We feel like we're here to stay in the top 10, and we just hope we make enough noise on the track that they continue to recognize us and talk about us.” -- Greg Biffle
Five of the RFR/RPM Fords finished in the top eight at Atlanta. Three of those cars rank in the top 10 in the standings. That includes Paul Menard, who was 31st last season in the Yates car. He finished fifth at Atlanta.
"We're getting there," Richard "Slugger" Labbe, Menard's crew chief, said recently. "I feel really good about our cars and what we're doing. And Paul's head is right. His feedback is awesome, and I think everyone is growing together."
The Ford cars are making these gains while still using the old engine. Ford Racing engineer David Simon, who is heading up the new engine development with Doug Yates, said two weeks ago that the organization plans to have all the Ford teams racing the new engine in the second half of the season.
But the old engine is more than holding its own for now.
"It's really competitive, so we haven't been under a lot of pressure to roll the new engine out early," Simon said. "With that said, the new engine is at a point where we're very confident in it. The performance is there, but the engine shop has a lot of parts they need to make, so that's why the rollout is a little bit slower."
One hurdle remains for RFR and the Ford program to prove the comeback is complete -- a trip to Victory Lane. A Ford hasn't won a non-restrictor-plate race in more than a year.
It's coming, and it might happen this weekend. A Roush car has won 50 percent of the Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway during the past eight seasons.
"Honestly, the season couldn't have started any better for us," Kenseth said. "I couldn't be happier. I know that sounds silly since we won the first two races last year, but our cars have been faster. It feels good to go to four different racetracks and be competitive at all of them. It feels like we are headed in the right direction."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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