It seems as if every two years, we have the same conversation surrounding Roush Fenway Racing.
Rumors swirl due to a stretch of spotty performance, hinting that a key member of the once-dominant Ford organization might be leaving for greener pastures. This time, it’s doubly dubious, as both Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle might be prepared to exit an organization they both helped to build and sustain for over a decade. Each of their contracts expires at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
First up is Greg Biffle. Earlier this year, it was made known that his contract was up for renewal and that things were progressing; however, he was in no rush or concerned with the length of time negotiations would take. The last time Biffle’s contract was up a few years back, it drug out a bit. But this time, the delay centers more around upper management changes at sponsor 3M. Does that mean Biffle and the No. 16 team are in danger of losing 3M as a sponsor? The loss of financial backing would seem highly unlikely. As Biffle explained in great detail last week, withMRN Radio it is more a case of getting the complex and moving marketing components in place rather than a sponsor weighing its option as whether or not they will return.
That was all well and good until Biffle slipped in, “That’s my focus and ultimately, I’ve got options. This isn’t the only place, you know. I’m gonna have a job.”
Woah – pump the brakes there, Biff. Options? What kind of options? Would Greg Biffle really leave the team he won Roush’s first two NASCAR championships for? In 2000, Biffle won Roush his first title in the Craftsman Truck Series, then followed that up with a Busch Series crown. Biffle drove the No. 60 car, which had run roughshod over the competition with Mark Martin at the wheel part-time for nearly a decade, to the top of NASCAR’s second-tier division back in 2002.
A few years ago, Biffle made the comment that he felt he was the “Senior Driver” at Roush Fenway – and clearly has the stats to back it up. When Matt Kenseth left at the end of 2012, any power vacuum which may have potentially existed, never really materialized between he and Carl Edwards, while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. performed as rookies typically have performed – not spectacular, given his two consecutive Nationwide titles in 2011 and 2012.
Then there’s the 400lbs (well, 200lbs…) gorilla in the room – Carl Edwards. Edwards was expected to be the odds-on replacement for Joey Logano in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine back in 2012, but Edwards received a honey of a deal from Roush – and Ford Motor Company – to remain as the most visible and marketable driver for what had been the lone Ford camp in the Sprint Cup Series.
Edwards is currently fifth in points with a Chase berth all but secured, but the team has not shown consistent speed at the larger tracks or been a legitimate threat to win there either. When Matt Kenseth went to Gibbs for 2013, it felt as if a large part of what had been Roush Racing left with him. Sure, Jimmy Fennig and Robbie Reiser remained, but it was yet another example of someone who was once viewed as a Roush “lifer” who bailed out with little effort made to retain him.
Just who else has Roush let get away in recent years? As Goose told Ice Man, “The list is long, but distinguished…”
You can chart the immediate success each driver went onto after leaving Roush Racing and/or Roush Fenway Racing; the later which was supposed to generate new sponsorship opportunities, but has instead seen the flagship No. 6 mothballed for the past three years, and the No. 16 and 6 Nationwide Entries wearing Ford Sponsorship, while Travis Pastrana was busy clearing out excess inventory on a weekly basis by bringing his own sponsorship to the table. This coupled with the organization seemingly out to lunch every couple of years on 1.5-mile tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule – and were once the cornerstone of the Roush program – have led to what once was among the most rock-solid enterprises in the sport, seemingly gone adrift in recent years.
While Carl Edwards did tie on points for the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship, it was due largely to having won just one race all year long – Las Vegas – a race that eventual champ Tony Stewart lost due to issues on the final pit stop. Aside from Matt Kenseth’s two Daytona 500 wins in 2009 and 2012, Roush Fenway hasn’t made a lot of noise in the Sprint Cup Series, due largely to the performance gap which has existed on the high-speed tracks. While the addition of the FR9 engine a couple of years ago was thought to have been a boon for Ford given its superior cooling abilities, allowing the teams to run more tape on the front end (i.e., increasing downforce/reducing drag), it has really only shown its muster on restrictor plate tracks compared to Chevrolet, Toyota, and Dodge, the later before their departure after winning the 2012 championship.
Each season in recent memory seems to echo a common refrain when the finishes haven’t been forthcoming: “We have some new stuff in the pipeline; we should be back on top in a few weeks.” This typically results in a couple of strong runs and a win at Michigan (a track where Roush takes extra pride in winning, being in the Big Three’s backyard), but come Chase time when you expect the Blue Oval to come out swinging, has ended up limping back to the bench, striking out yet again in pursuit of a title – or even wins – or in the No. 16’s case, decent runs.
Greg Biffle last won a race at Michigan in June of 2013. While there’s no shame in that, he’s only posted three Top 5’s since then, one of which was two weeks ago at the crap shoot that is Talladega. He’s had five wins in the last five years, going 0-fer in 2009 and 2011, and thus far in 2014.
Carl Edwards’ record despite what you’d imagine due to his success in the Nationwide Series, hasn’t been much better. Six wins since 2009, with winless campaigns in 2009 and 2012. He has one win this year at the rain-delayed Bristol race in April, largely on the strength of the dominant cars of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch wrecking. He has a bevy of Top 5s and 10s in recent years, but for the driver who has been the face of Ford for nearly a decade now, you’d expect a little more on the Sprint Cup side of things – and Edwards might just be feeling the same way as well. Given his age, approaching 35 years old this August, he is the age when most drivers traditionally peak. Biffle on the other hand will be – eek! – 45 years old come December.
Not saying The Biff is some creepy old guy, but statistically speaking, he’s going to be on the downside of his career in few years, and there really hasn’t been much indication recently that things are poised to turn around.
With Team Penske coming on board with Ford to “benchmark” themselves against another top tier Cup team, they have effectively raised the bar significantly, don’t have to manage an engine program, and if there is any trickle-down engineering between the two camps by way of manufacturer alignment, it has yet to be realized.
Given both Roush and Ford’s inability to retain top talent over the course of the last 20 years (including losing both Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne), and Jack Roush who has sustained a couple of near-death experiences and seemingly not as involved as he once was (Roush has publically taken responsibility for both Martin and Kenseth leaving for not being as involved as he should have been), both Edwards and Biffle may be leaving simultaneously, leaving both team and manufacturer in a bind.
But where might they end up?
The logical teams would be either Joe Gibbs Racing or Michael Waltrip Racing, given the seats available. Biffle and Kenseth are friends, and always worked well together at Roush. Edwards and Kenseth once had a bit of a tenuous relationship, but things seem to have mellowed a bit, and the addition of Edwards would not only add additional talent, but his cadre of sponsorship which would put JGR on par with Hendrick Motorsports as far as a jam-packed all-star roster. MWR could use a veteran presence given the recent upheaval the last two years, with two drivers, two crew chiefs, and a major sponsor bailing, all in the span of three months. Biffle could bring that sort of stability to the team, as well as a sponsor who seems more tied to the driver than the organization.
One intriguing scenario would keep Edwards within the Ford camp, but in a Penske machine. The obvious potential conflict here would be the past rift he once famously had with Brad Keselowski. Time heals wounds (and catchfences), and as we’ve seen so far with the alleged “volatile personalities” of Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart, drivers who have had strong words and disagreements with each other in the past can move past that, as they are all professionals, and are united by their commitment to winning. These drivers also have something to prove, given the situations they have each seen themselves leave for in the past.
While former Roush Fenway President Geoff Smith put the organization in a bit of a bind by having both of their cornerstone drivers’ contracts expire at the same time, it is unlikely that both would leave, however the potential clearly exists. If there’s one driver who is most likely to leave, it would be Edwards, as he has the most to gain both financially and statistically.
Biffle is the better bet to stay put, particularly if Edwards leaves, leaving him as the one veteran on the team, with Chris Buescher as the most promising driver in the development pipeline, and who has shown the potential thus far to graduate to the Cup level. Trevor Bayne remains a work in progress despite his 2011 Daytona 500 shocker, while rookie Ryan Reed has wrecked cars in the Nationwide Series at a rate that even Travis Pastrana would deem alarming.
Whatever the outcome, the face of Roush Fenway Racing is likely to change by season’s end – and it may not be a happy one.