No dark clouds over Roush these days
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jack Roush believes he can win a championship. It may sound an obvious thing to say, but not when one considers what Roush has been through.
He's watched rules changes directly affect his team. He's seen controversial penalties strip his driver of precious points in two close points races that he eventually lost.
In more than 15 years of racing, the owner famous for his straw hat watched season after season wondering who it was, exactly, that had it out for him and why he was cursed from winning a NASCAR Cup championship.
So for him to sit in a corner of the expansive Homestead-Miami Speedway and say that he believes his driver, Kurt Busch, can win a championship -- well, that's news.
It's also the result of a broken curse, and a brash, young stud who'd go out and win the thing just because someone told him he couldn't.
"I've got a completely different mindset this year than I had last year," said Roush, who last season watched his driver, Matt Kenseth, surprise him with a title and reverse fortunes, so to speak.
"Like this Red Sox thing," he says, "this curse is broken. We've outlived it."
On Sunday, Roush hopes to collect his second owner's title. If he does, it will be under drastically different circumstances than last year. Kenseth ran away with the points title last season, a move which many speculate prompted the points reconfiguration which reset points for the top 10 after 26 races and pit the top 10 in a 10-race shootout.
Roush likes his chances, though. And he does because he's got a driver who doesn't know any better than to go out and win the biggest title of his life, and a crew chief who's just smart enough to help the kid do it.
"When he came to us in 2000 in the truck program, he had less than 70 races on his resume with cars that were more than 2000 pounds," Roush says, recalling his beginnings with Busch.
"That speaks volumes. He was just a baby and just getting started. All the things that happened that are contentious on the racetrack, among people that have got the space that don't want to share it, those things were new for him. All the pressure from the media and being under the microscope. That was all new."
It showed. Busch finished 27th his rookie season. But somehow he bounced back the next year and, after winning this very Miami race, finished third in the points race.
Roush can only shake his head in wonderment.
"He's an incredibly quick study," he says. "He adapted to the cars quickly."
That wasn't the only change. The Roush organization shook things up before that year. They had Busch and veteran racer Mark Martin switch crew chiefs, pairing Martin with the younger and more innovative Ben Leslie, and pairing Busch with the elder statesman Jimmy Fennig.
Fennig isn't a guy who gets a lot of attention. But he should. He's one of the smartest crew chiefs in the garage, and always seems to figure out a way to communicate with his drivers -- even though they had such variant styles as Bobby Allison, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch do.
"Jimmy Fennig is an unsung hero at Roush Racing," Roush said. "He doesn't do things that create a personal image away from the driver or away from the sponsor or away from the team. He's the trooper that's back there doing everything that he can everyday."
These past nine weeks, he's sat back and let his driver soak up the spotlight. Meanwhile, he made sure that, even when the car wasn't set up strong at the start, that the car was a rocketship at the finish. Other teams have marvelled at the adversities the 97 team has faced on the racetrack, only to finish top 10 in almost every one of the past nine events.
Much of this credit is owed to Fennig, and much goes to Busch, as well. Kenseth has watched in awe as his younger teammate has thrived. Certainly no stranger to pressure himself, Kenseth differentiates the intensity of the weight he carried last year with a large points lead and the even greater weight Busch has carried this season.
"Sunday is going to be an interesting race and Kurt has done a really good job all these last 10 weeks of handling that pressure and doing good with what he's given," Kenseth said. "When he had his problem at Atlanta, that would have been an easy time for him to snap and lose his head and not do well, but he's done a great job handling that pressure and staying where he's at.
"And he showed that this weekend when he stepped up and took the pole [Friday]. That was pretty awesome. It's his only pole of the year and just shows you that the pressure is really not getting to him because he didn't mess that up."
That surprised Roush maybe more than anyone else. But, he says, he should come to expect stuff like that. He should stop looking over his shoulder for the dark cloud that will rain on his parade and stop worrying about who might do what to inexplicably hinder his drivers' title runs.
Those days are over. The curse has been lifted. And Sunday, Roush might just prove it for the second year in a row.
"That would be something," he says. "I'm much more at ease this year going forward. As a matter of fact, I haven't put one word together on a potential owner-acceptance speech; if I have one it'll be a last-minute scurry if I have to do that.
"And I'm prepared and at peace with myself that if we can't win this year that it's been a good fair chase and whoever the champion is I'll celebrate it as much as I would if I was just a fan."
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.
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