Room for improvement ... but not much room
It's only because Matt Kenseth entered the race as the points leader and Kurt Busch came in after having lost the year before by mere ticks of a stopwatch that Roush Racing's drivers weren't excited about their overall effort at Darlington Raceway.
After all, most other teams would be loving placing four drivers in the top 12 in Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 -- especially given that the only Roush driver not among the top 12 was Kenseth, who still leads the points race despite spinning out and later being penalized en route to finishing 31st.
"It looked like it might be a lot better than that," team owner Jack Roush said.
And he's right. Busch was one of the fastest cars all day long. Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle showed fast cars early on. Mark Martin showed a rocket ship late. Of the four, Roush thought he might get one of them to Victory Lane.
"That's how competitive the Nextel Cup Series is," Busch said.
Busch entered the Darlington weekend coming off a 12th-place finish in Atlanta, where he also brought a sturdy horse but was unable to close the deal. On Sunday, he thought a top-five would make it easier for everyone to forget about any what-ifs from Atlanta. Instead, he finished sixth and left with another what if.
Still, the disappointment stems from knowledge that the team could have been better, and from a confidence Busch has in his crew chief and crew that his No. 97 Ford is going to be stout every Sunday.
"The crew was able to give me great pit stops and with the way the engine ran all day it's tough to come away with a sixth, but it's a great step in the right direction," he said. "After the past few weeks we just weren't a top-five car. Today we were a top-five car and that's just due to (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig stepping up and saying we're gonna go this route with our setup. It makes it a little bit tougher to drive, but I've got to adjust to it."
Early in the day, Biffle was sure he would come away with a top-five. In fact, at one point he looked like he could actually win the race if he could stay out of trouble. But trouble was around the corner -- between Turns 1 and 2, to be exact. After pounding the wall his car got ornery and he was struggling to keep on the lead lap that No. 16 Ford he earlier thought was capable of a top finish.
"We got the right-front tire hurt and were falling back trying to stay on the lead lap," Biffle said after finishing 12th. "I was trying to move around some lapped cars and got up in the wall in 1 and 2 and the car wasn't the same after that. We probably knocked the toe out or something, but what got us in that position was hurting right-front tires. It could be camber-related or air-pressure, we don't really know. ... I think we were a top-five car easy until we started having right-front tire trouble."
Burton was another who voiced disappointment despite the fact that he posted his highest finish of the season (11th). The driver of the No. 99 Ford believed that he had a rocket ship, one capable of a top-five or better. But a cranky set of wheels changed the entire disposition of the race car.
"It's a little bit disappointing," he said. "About a third of the way through the race we were really fast and we had to pit and fix our grille because I poked somebody and had to fix that. Then we were really, really good -- a top-three car. Then we came in and put a set of tires on and then we weren't as good. It was terrible.
"We went to the back and were going to go a lap down and couldn't figure out why, so we came in and a tire was going down. So we made an adjustment to fix that and then we were too tight. All in all, it was a good day. I'm proud of our guys. They had good pit stops and we can build on this."
|“||The crew was able to give me great pit stops and with the way the engine ran all day it's tough to come away with (only) a sixth, but it's a great step in the right direction. ”|
|— Kurt Busch|
Amidst all the disappointment was Kenseth. His car was solid until he spun out. And even after that, he might have climbed back into the top 15 or 10. Anything was possible -- ask Kasey Kahne. But NASCAR penalized Kenseth for a pit road violation under yellow. The 17 team vehemently disputed the charge, but to no avail. The defending Cup champ finished four laps down.
"Don't ask me what NASCAR rules," Kenseth's crew chief Robbie Reiser said. "I don't know. Obviously, they've got a different set of rules for every race and I guess I've just got to get a rule book for every race. I don't know what happened. We never pitted, so pulling up to pit is a lame excuse for a lap penalty. I really don't know what happened. ... It seems like these days you need a rule book for every race track we go to."
Mark Martin wasn't disappointed with his day at Darlington, though. He's been fighting his way back from 42nd in the points after the first race of the year and his team continues to look stronger. The No. 6 Ford that the team unloaded at Darlington wasn't exactly a winning race car. Martin said it wasn't exactly a strong race car. But he couldn't stop thanking his team, as usual, for working tirelessly on the rig until they got it to where it finished seventh on Sunday.
"I've got the best race team in the business right now," he said. "We've just got to get our cars a little bit faster and we'll do that. I love (crew chief) Pat Tryson and my guys. I want to keep them charged up and keep them together. We're fighting right now, so I'm real proud of that finish. We'll keep working on it and try to get faster. I'm happy with the finish. We weren't as good with the race car as we hoped, but I'm really proud of Pat Tryson and the Viagra team."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.