For Greg Biffle, New Hampshire was the worst.
It was July, and in practice for the 17th race of the 2007 season – the eighth using the new car being introduced to NASCAR’s top series – Biffle was baffled.
“We were the slowest car there,” he said. “We were 49th on the (speed) sheet. Obviously, somebody’s got to be the slowest car, but it was frustrating for me. It’s a race track I almost won at and got in the top five nearly every time I’d been there.”
“To go there as a driver, and I was the worst car and slowest car there, I’ve never felt like that in my life.”
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Weeks earlier, after similarly frustrating results in races with the new car, drivers and crew chiefs on Ford’s flagship Cup Series team went to car owner Jack Roush and said something had to change.
“We got blindsided and didn’t do as much testing with the car of tomorrow,” Roush admitted late in the season. He said he had expected NASCAR to impose stricter limits on the testing that teams could do with the new cars, but eventually realized other teams – most specifically Hendrick Motorsports – weren’t balking at that.
“We had four or five really bad races with that early on just because we didn’t have as much information as some of the other teams did,” Roush said. “I misjudged that. That was my fault.”
The impact of that miscalculation is clear. Even with improved performance in car of tomorrow races by the season’s second half, punctuated by Carl Edwards’ wins at Bristol (Tenn.) and Dover (Del.), Roush Fenway Racing’s top three teams averaged 1,992 points in the 16 COT races.
Cup runner-up Jeff Gordon had 2,482 and eventual champion Jimmie Johnson had 2,406 for Hendrick Motorsports.
That new car will be used in all 36 races in 2008, so it is imperative for Roush’s teams to keep erasing whatever gap existed as a result of his miscalculations.
“At the beginning of the season, we were horrible,” said Biffle, who missed the Chase while teammates Matt Kenseth and Edwards made it. “I think we’ll all admit it. We weren’t even close.
“At the end of the season, we weren’t where we needed to be, but we were certainly a heck of a lot better. I look forward to starting off this season, hopefully, with where we left off last year.”
While Biffle looks to get back to where he was in 2005, winning six times and joining Edwards at 35 points behind that season’s champion, Tony Stewart, it’s Kenseth who has the most momentum to try to carry over.
Closer than you think?
Hendrick Motorsports had a very strong 2007 season, but over the four seasons since the Chase format has been in place in NASCAR’s Cup Series, Ford’s flagship team at Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t fared that badly when compared with Chevrolet’s top operation.
Hendrick cars have raced 601 times, while Roush cars have run 726 events. Hendrick leads in wins, 50 to 36. Rouch has the edge in top 5s, 172-170, and top 10s, 299 to 270.
Matt Kenseth finished strong in ’07
The driver of the No. 17 Ford won the finale to cap a late run that carried him from last in the 12-driver Chase five races in, to fourth in the final standings five races later.
Kenseth finished in the top five in each of the season’s final races and gained 17 points on eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, though Johnson won four of those five races.
Kenseth has made the Chase all four seasons it’s been used to pick a champion – since the 2003 season when his consistency carried him to the final title under the old format.
There is something new for Kenseth this year, though. After working with crew chief Robbie Reiser throughout his NASCAR career, Kenseth has Chip Bolin in that job. Reiser moved up to a manager’s position with the entire Roush Fenway operation in the Cup Series.
“Chip has been there a long time and we know each other well,” Kenseth said.
“We didn’t really make too many other changes on the road crew, so it’s really not – so far anyway – that different than what I’m used to.
“Chip has always been kind of the technical side of the team or Robbie’s brain or my brain or however you want to say it. He’s always been the engineer holed up in the back and looking through numbers and testing stuff.
“Robbie was more the organizer and hands-on guy and all that kind of stuff, where Chip is still trying to do the engineering and trying to figure out how to make the cars go fast, as well as trying to take over a lot of the duties Robbie did day-to-day, so it’s a little different approach.”
He rebounded from a lackluster second full season to win three times and get back into the Chase last year after being reunited with his 2005 crew chief, Bob Osborne. Edwards also won the Busch Series championship in 2007 and, despite a late-season flare-up of intramural tensions with Kenseth, re-emerged as one of the sport’s potential stars.
He got his second career win at Daytona in July, and his first since joining the Roush camp, but there weren’t enough highlights to go along with that. David Ragan had top-10 finishes in the first and last races of his rookie season, but only one other top 10 all year.
Rounding out the Ford drivers, teams
Robert Yates sold his team to son Doug, and it moved onto the same campus with the Roush teams. The younger Yates has been a key player in the Roush-Yates engine cooperative all along, and now his drivers will use Roush-built cars to try to show improvement.
David Gilliland returns in the No. 38 Ford, with Travis Kvapil moving into the team’s other car, replacing retired Ricky Rudd.
Kvapil is using the No. 28 after Robert Yates let the No. 88 move to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his new deal at Hendrick Motorsports.
Another team with a long Ford history, the Wood Brothers, will start the season with Bill Elliott in the No. 21 for Daytona Speedweeks. Jon Wood and Marcos Ambrose also will drive that car in portions of the Sprint Cup schedule.
Driver Robby Gordon is back with the No. 7 team he also owns, with Frank Kerr as his crew chief for 2008.
“This is my third time with Frank,” Gordon said. “I was looking for what made our program competitive in the past. We won Busch races with him and ran really well. I know Frank. Frank knows us.”