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Roush figures steady wins the race

2/6/2009 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jack Roush doesn't have to think about why people consider Hendrick Motorsports the top Sprint Cup organization instead of his heading into 2009.

He knows.

Talladega Superspeedway and Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Change the fate in one of those October races and Carl Edwards might be the defending champion instead of Jimmie Johnson for the third straight year. If Edwards were the champion, along with four teammates inside the top 16 in points, the racing world would be calling Roush Fenway Racing king.

It could have happened. Easily.

With 14 laps remaining at Talladega, Edwards tried to push teammate Greg Biffle to the front. Unfortunately for them and a lot of others, Edwards tried to do it entering Turn 3, taking himself, Biffle, teammate Matt Kenseth and several others out.

Edwards finished 29th and went from 10 points behind Johnson to 72 back. A week later, Edwards had both ignition boxes go out at the same time at LMS and finished 33rd, losing yet another 96 points to Johnson.

He lost the title by 69.

So don't tell Roush he has to do anything major -- or minor -- to close the gap on HMS.

"If one of those would have occurred and not both, [Edwards] would have got more points in the final 10 races than [Johnson] did, so we don't need to close the gap on technology," Roush said. "We don't need to correct some oversight of judgment.

"We don't need to make our manufacturing or our cars faster in terms of the speed they've got in them; all we have to do is miss the wreck and not have the bad luck of having infant mortality with a component around the engine and we'll be just fine."

Even without the title, one could argue that Roush Fenway had a better overall 2008. Roush's drivers finished second, third, 11th, 13th and 16th in points compared to first, seventh, 12th and 19th at HMS. They won 11 races to Hendrick's eight and had 52 top-5 finishes in their Fords compared to 39 by their rivals in Chevrolets.

Edwards actually won nine races to Johnson's seven.

"We finished 2008 in championship form, and I've just got to work to try and maintain that going forward," Roush said.

Confidence certainly isn't lacking. Asked during the recent media tour if there is the potential for all five of his drivers to make the Chase as they did in 2005, Roush didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," he said.

He was close in 2008. David Ragan finished 77 points behind Clint Bowyer for the 12th and final spot and might have overcome that were it not for a 32nd-place finish in the final regular-season race at Richmond that Roush believes was avoidable.

"David let himself get three-wide on the outside with Clint being on the inside and Clint trying to trip the light fantastic around the bottom with not enough traction for his action with the car that was in the middle and took David into the wall," Roush recalled.

"From that point on, Clint's position in the Chase was secure and David was pretty much eliminated from it."

Jamie McMurray wasn't close to making the Chase, but over the final six races he was as good as anybody not named Johnson or Edwards: McMurray posted five top-sevens and three consecutive thirds to finish the season.

With the addition of former crew chief Donnie Wingo, he is brimming with confidence.

"It usually works that the guys who ended the season strong typically are the ones who come out of the box strong," McMurray said.

The whole Roush Fenway camp expects to come out strong -- even Kenseth, despite going winless for the first time since 2001.

They should be.

The Roush-Yates engine program is one of the best in the business, and the new Ford engine expected to debut by midseason could be a difference-maker by the start of the Chase.

The addition of Bobby Labonte to the Yates team, a partner of Roush Fenway, will help provide even more valuable information to what essentially is an eight-car lineup.

That almost half the races are on 1.5-mile to 2-mile tracks where Roush Fenway has proven to have a decided advantage is also a major plus.

And then there's raw talent.

Kenseth obviously has what it takes, capturing the 2003 championship with an incredible 25 top-10s. Biffle and Edwards finished tied for second in 2005, only 35 points behind Tony Stewart. Each was a threat to win last season's championship as well until the wreck at Talladega.

And the backflipping Edwards still made it interesting with three wins in the final four events.

The strong finish apparently made enough of an impression that many preseason publications picked Edwards to knock Johnson off the throne.

"He's a competitive guy," Roush said. "He's a very proud guy. He's bright and he's ambitious and those are dangerous traits if you're another race car driver trying to compete against him for space on the racetrack."

But as high as Roush is on his top three drivers, he's equally high on Ragan. He says the third-year driver can be "as good as anybody has been in this business."

If Ragan improves as much from last season to this season -- he went from three top-10s to 14 -- he'll definitely be a contender.

"He's the real deal," Roush said.

Because Ragan is so optimistic, he'll be devastated if he doesn't win a race and extremely disappointed if he doesn't make the Chase.

"Devastation is a hard thing," Roush said. "It's hard for me to put a metric on that, but certainly I'll be disappointed and they'll be the victim of unbelievable bad luck or mismanagement on my part if we let that happen.

"I'm determined not to mismanage him and hopefully the luck will work out for us."

Luck is all that Roush said he truly believes stands between him and the championship. He knows the rest is in place, just as it was in 2005.

"[2005] wasn't a matter that we outran all the teams that would have displaced one of our five, but teams that otherwise would have been competitive with us had those infant mortality component problems," Roush said in a way that only he can. "They had the wrecks on the race track; they had the tires that ran over something and went flat.

"So we've got to have that kind of luck and have the bad luck we had last year, to some level, have it move someplace else."

He would like it to move to HMS, which has assembled a "Dream Team" with the addition of former Roush star Mark Martin to the lineup of Johnson, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's that lineup that has the so-called experts touting HMS as top dog instead of Roush.

That and Talladega and LMS.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.