Sports

FLUTO SHINZAWA

Roush Fenway Racing is back in the fast lane

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 01: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Fifth Thrid Bank Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his Roush Fenway Racing teammates have celebrated two wins on the Cup circuit this season.

LOUDON, N.H. — It is neither fun nor easy to report to work with zero chance of results.

For almost three years, this was life at Roush Fenway Racing. Since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway on June 22, 2014, one of NASCAR’s bedrock organizations limped out of every racetrack with tailpipes jammed down its throat. For 101 events, team owner Jack Roush, known as the Cat in the Hat, had his competitors hand him his trademark topper. Fellow owner and Globe publisher John Henry bankrolled a team lower than the Fenway Park dugouts. 

The streak of futility lasted so long that Edwards, formerly pilot of the No. 99 Ford, had not just transferred to Joe Gibbs Racing since Roush Fenway’s last win. Edwards left the sport entirely. 

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“We weren’t competing very much for a few of those years,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 17 Ford. “It was easy not to want to go to the track.”

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So on May 7, it was a bundle of joy, relief, and satisfaction that Stenhouse delivered not just to himself but his organization with a slump-snapping win at the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. 

“It was certainly a huge moment in Roush Fenway’s history,” said competition director Kevin Kidd. “To be able to go through what we’ve gone through the last few years, where we committed to a rebuilding project over the winter, and get to Victory Lane so soon in the season and so soon in the rebuilding process we’re working on, it was a huge moment for the company and all the folks who’ve worked here through all the highs and lows.”

Stenhouse was not satisfied with one win. He doubled down on the formerly unimaginable by grabbing the Coke Zero 400’s checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway on July 1. 

Stenhouse, starting from 17th place, will race for a third win on Sunday in the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It will not be easy. Roush Fenway’s turnaround is not complete.

Not fast enough

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Brian Pattie knows what it’s like to struggle. Pattie, Stenhouse’s first-year crew chief, stood atop the No. 16’s pit box last year. It was not a comfortable office. 

Greg Biffle had 19 career Monster Energy Cup Series wins. In 2016, Biffle recorded zero wins and one top-five finish. His average finish was 21st place. Had state troopers trained their radar guns on the No. 16, it would not have been pulled over. 

“Lack of speed throughout the company,” Pattie said. “It was a few years in the making. Trying to right the ship and get it turned around was difficult. It was hard because I’d made the Chase multiple times with multiple drivers [Clint Bowyer and Juan Pablo Montoya]. Greg had won championships. We knew we could do it. But the lack of results was very frustrating.”

The problem was simple. The Roush Fenway cars were not fast enough. Their competitors at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, and Stewart-Haas Racing, once their equals, had left them in the rearview mirror. For Stenhouse, Biffle, and Trevor Bayne, asking them to run up front was like requiring a chef to provide Michelin-quality meals without proper ingredients. 

“Not to say Gibbs has a perfect culture,” said Kidd, who joined Roush Fenway in 2014 after serving as a crew chief in Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series program. “But it’s a different culture, one I learned from my time there. With any stop along the way, you learn things that help you with the next step. When I got to Roush, quite frankly, the approach was a little antiquated. It was outdated for where the sport has migrated to.”

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Kidd assessed that Roush Fenway had not fully adopted an engineering-driven approach. Roush Fenway, therefore, had no choice but to initiate what its colleagues on Lansdowne Street could never publicly undertake: a rebuild.

“We had to establish a culture of a winning attitude again — that we’re here to compete,” Kidd said. “We had to do it in a way that was sustainable. There was an emphasis placed on the modernization of our approach, focusing a little more heavily on engineering, and specifically in aerodynamic development.”

The overhaul included a hard decision. In 2005, all five of its drivers (Biffle, Edwards, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch) qualified for the 10-car Chase. After Biffle and Roush Fenway parted ways last year, the garage door to the No. 16 slammed shut. The former five-car behemoth would start 2017 with just two rides: the No. 6 and No. 17. 

Trevor Bayne (left) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are the only drivers for Roush Fenway on the Monster Energy Cup circuit this season.
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Trevor Bayne (left) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are the only drivers for Roush Fenway on the Monster Energy Cup circuit this season.

In retrospect, downsizing was not harmful. The company distilled its resources into the teams behind Bayne and Stenhouse. 

“In this sport, getting larger is sometimes the best thing that can happen, but also a curse,” Kidd said. “As you get larger, that means challenges for finding adequate staffing for teams. It can be difficult. You couple that with customer programs and all the interactions for those guys, that’s where it can get pretty busy. Two teams bodes well for us this year. Quite frankly, we’re happy we did it. It’s helping us get this thing pointed in the right direction a little quicker.”

Breaking through

Stenhouse is a two-time Xfinity champion. His 2011 and 2012 championship trophies, however, were as helpful as sandbags in the trunk upon his full-time Cup graduation in 2013. As a rookie, Stenhouse’s best finish was third place at Talladega. Stenhouse recorded two top-five results in 2014 and 2015, both at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Last year, Stenhouse posted four top-fives. Two were at Talladega and Daytona, hinting at future superspeedway success.

But the checkered flags that Stenhouse accumulated in Xfinity were impossible to snatch in Cup. It wore on him and his crew.

“It was tough to keep everybody motivated,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like part of my job is to keep everybody motivated. NASCAR’s a sport where you go up and down quite a bit.”

But the more laps Stenhouse turned, the more confidence he developed at every track. At the same time, Pattie and his team were attacking racecraft, the term Kidd uses to describe the variables required for results. 

“All the elements that go into executing the weekend fall under the racecraft banner,” Kidd said. “Car setups, decision-making, how we approach car setups, strategy, how we call a race, when we take two [tires] or four, when we stay out, when we take fuel only — that’s part of racecraft. There’s a data-driven approach to some of that stuff.”

The No. 17 team improved on its superspeedway setups to the point where Stenhouse believed he had a car worthy of a win. Stenhouse thundered to the pole at Talladega. He finished the race where he started by passing Kyle Busch on the last lap. Less than two months later, Stenhouse turned the trick again at Daytona.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win at Talladega Superspeedway in May was the first for Roush Fenway Racing in three years.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images/File
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win at Talladega Superspeedway in May was the first for Roush Fenway Racing in three years.

“The first one of your career is always the best,” Stenhouse said of his Talladega win. “Then Daytona, not many times people get a win at Daytona. That was really special.”

Roush Fenway has found speed at Talladega and Daytona. One of its initiatives is to replicate results at shorter tracks such as NHMS. Odds are tall on Sunday. 

Stenhouse (four top-fives, seven top-10s), 16th in the standings, will start on the ninth row. Bayne (zero top-fives, two top-10s), in 19th place, will take the green on the 14th row. Both the No. 17 and No. 6 have work to do on Sunday. But both teams have hope where little previously existed.

“Were they beat down and low on morale because of not winning? Yeah. Absolutely,” Kidd said of Roush Fenway employees. “But the passion and hunger for success was still there. It was evident. Absolutely evident. It didn’t take much to get people to turn the corner and believe in themselves again.”

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.