Roush owns half of the Chase field
RICHMOND, Va. -- It took Jack Roush 16 years to win a championship in NASCAR's top stock car series. Now, it looks like he might be a shoo-in to win a third straight title.
A 1-2-3 Roush Racing finish Saturday night in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway assured the team owner of having half the 10-man field in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Kurt Busch, the reigning champion, led 2003 champ Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle across the finish line on a night when Kenseth wrapped up a spot in the Chase after struggling through the first half of the season.
Mark Martin, who came with Roush to the Cup Series in 1988, had already clinched a place in the top 10 -- along with Busch and Biffle -- before the race. But, he came back from two laps down Saturday after a flat tire early to finish on the lead lap, 13th overall.
Carl Edwards, the youngest of the Roush drivers and perhaps the biggest surprise, finished 21st in the race and nailed down eighth place in the points, just ahead of Kenseth, in his first full season in Cup.
"I'm really excited about taking this group of five to the final 10 races," Roush said. "I expected to come out tonight with three cars in the top 10. I was hoping for four.
"The fact that Matt didn't have a flat tire, and he didn't break anything, and Carl narrowly avoided a crash that would have been a disaster, was great. The litany of things that can happen and didn't, that can get on top of you, they stayed away from us tonight."
Kenseth, who has charged from 17th to ninth in the points in a three-month period, agreed that the Roush team should be considered the favorite, with half the Chase field.
"Jack's a good owner," Kenseth said. "He gives us everything we need to run up front. We all have access to the same stuff and all five of us work well together."
Others in the series agree that beating Roush is a daunting challenge.
"I don't know if NASCAR should be concerned, but I'm concerned," said owner Ray Evernham, who has only one driver, Jeremy Mayfield, in the Chase. "Really, there's a part of me that's concerned, and there's a part of me that takes my hat off to Jack Roush. It's pretty amazing what the man's done."
Roush chased a NASCAR championship for years, famously coming up short over and over as Martin finished second in the standings a heartbreaking four times. He entered NASCAR as a single-car owner, then slowly started to expand his operation.
He added a second car in 1992, then a third in 1996. Two years later, he had an unheard of five cars. But with expansion came growing pains, and Roush did not have a legitimate title contender until 2002 when Martin again fell short.
Roush finally broke through in 2003, when Kenseth won the title.
But Kenseth did it in underwhelming fashion, using consistency instead of dominance. He won just one race, but had 25 top-10 finishes. It created such an anticlimactic title hunt that NASCAR overhauled its championship season that winter.
The result is the current 10-race playoff-style format, in which the top 10 drivers in the standings following the Richmond race are eligible to win the championship.
Busch used the format to win the title last season, giving Roush two in a row.
Now, he's on the verge of a dynasty and is largely credited with creating the blueprint for how to successfully run a multi-car operation.
But Roush is also often criticized for his approach.
"I'm not really a gambler, but I know if you go to Vegas and bet five numbers instead of one that your odds are better of winning," Evernham said. "His odds are certainly better than anybody's right now."
Roush makes no apologies for his success, and said he warned NASCAR president Mike Helton of his team's potential when the new points system was announced.
"I said, 'Mike, right now there has been a lot of criticism on multi-team programs and it's growing and getting stronger and it's going to continue to do that,'" Roush said. "I predicted last year that we'd put all five [in the Chase]. People are going to say I'm predatory.
"But we've got a really nice group of cars that can go do pretty much do on any given day what anybody can do in the business. If we don't put them [all] in the top 10, it's going to be because I've done something to screw them up."
Roush did his best to prevent that last weekend at California, using a "team orders" philosophy that is popular in open-wheel racing. Four of his drivers swept the first four qualifying spots, and after the race started, each one took a turn leading a lap.
After each driver led long enough to pick up NASCAR's five-point bonus, he would slow long enough to allow a teammate to pass him for the lead.
That irritated many of the other competitors.
"It should be every man for himself, but you never know how the team situation may play out," said Ryan Newman, who began Saturday night one point out of the 10th and final qualifying spot. "If five Roush teams are in top 10, they might have an obvious advantage. The way they were swapping the lead at California for bonus points makes you wonder if they have something planned for the last 10 races.
"I don't think it's wrong, and I don't think it's unfair. I just think it's a part of the sport, and there's a distinct advantage in having teammates to be able to do that."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press