Five years ago, seven races into the 2012 season, Roush-Fenway Racing looked like the team to beat for the championship. Greg Biffle had just captured his first win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, breaking a 49-race winless streak and allowing him to extend his points lead.
The Roush-Fenway organization seemed to have everything figured out.
However, RFR began a long, slow, downward spiral later that year. Kenseth and Biffle combined to earn three more wins later that year, but got off to bad starts in the Chase that took them out of championship contention. Kenseth departed at the end of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing. The following year, Edwards won two races and Biffle won once, but both had disappointing Chase performances.
Kenseth’s replacement, rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., went winless. In 2014, Edwards’ two wins were the only victories for RFR. Edwards would follow Kenseth to JGR for the 2015 season. Roush-Fenway became mired in a long winless drought and increasingly poor performance. Biffle, Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne each struggled, even on the intermediate tracks where RFR had once been so dominant.
While Biffle and Bayne have earned segment wins in the Monster Energy (formerly Sprint) Showdown in recent years, no RFR driver has won a points-paying race or qualified for the postseason since 2014.
These struggles resulted in another off-season personnel shakeup following the 2016 season. The biggest change was the departure of Biffle and the shuttering of the No. 16 team. With apparently no light at the end of the tunnel, Roush-Fenway’s 2017 season looked like it would be another difficult slog.
However, there are signs that RFR’s downward spiral might be slowing down, or even stopped. After seven races, Stenhouse Jr. is only 12 points outside the postseason cutoff. Bayne is actually in playoff contention by 13 points.
Those statistics are a far cry from the numbers that Roush-Fenway put up in its heyday, but it is notable that the team has both its drivers vying for playoff spots at present. Keep in mind that RFR lost Biffle, its veteran racer and 19-time winner in NASCAR’s top division.
Furthermore, Stewart-Haas Racing’s switch to Ford threatened to knock Roush-Fenway further down the Blue Oval pecking order. Amid contraction and intra-manufacturer competition, RFR looks no worse for wear.
The next few weeks could be critical for Roush-Fenway. Stenhouse and Bayne have both gotten off to good starts before, only to fall apart later and miss the postseason. RFR’s true test will be finding a way to keep Stenhouse Jr. and Bayne in the playoff conversation over the long haul.
In his rookie season, Stenhouse spent several weeks hovering around the Chase bubble. While a crash at Texas set him back, Stenhouse rebounded well enough to place 14th in points following Dover’s June race, only 11 markers outside of the Chase. Yet the No. 17 team struggled after that point, posting only two top 15 finishes during the rest of the regular season. Stenhouse also had some success early on last year, scoring three top 12s in the first five races. But he faded again shortly thereafter, and the No. 17 team never really looked like a serious Chase contender.
Bayne and the No. 6 team had a better shot at the Chase in 2016. After struggling in the opening weeks, Bayne picked up steam and climbed to 16th in points following the race at Kentucky Speedway. After a few up and down finishes, Bayne had advanced to 15th, but needed to either win or gain 35 points on Ryan Newman to qualify for the Chase. From that point on, it was all downhill for Bayne. Kyle Larson’s victory at Michigan International Speedway further complicated Bayne’s path to the postseason, and an engine failure the following week at Darlington Raceway effectively ended his chances.
In 2017, both of Roush-Fenway’s drivers have an opportunity to make their first postseason appearances. While it is too early to tell if RFR has really turned a corner, two races in the coming weeks could provide some clues to how well Stenhouse and Bayne will hold up over the long term: Bristol and Talladega.
Bristol Motor Speedway has become Stenhouse’s best track. Four of his eight starts have resulted in a top six finish. Two of those are second place finishes, the most recent coming in last year’s Bristol “Night” Race. Stenhouse Jr. has already done well for himself in 2017 by posting respectable results at Phoenix and Martinsville, two tracks where he has struggled in the past. So, what will the No. 17 team do with its strongest track next up on the calendar?
Bayne, meanwhile, has only made five starts at Bristol, but three of those have resulted in top 15s. His best finish at Thunder Valley is fifth, one year ago. While he is more of a question mark than Stenhouse at Bristol, Bayne will no doubt be seeking a good performance at his home track.
Talladega Superspeedway provides another strong opportunity for the Roush-Fenway drivers to make some noise. Stenhouse has developed into quite the underrated restrictor plate racer. In seven starts at Talladega, he has two top fives, four top 10s, and only one finish worse than 16th. Given the randomness of restrictor plate racing at NASCAR’s biggest track, those are better numbers than most of the top drivers in the sport can boast.
After his celebrated victory in the 2011 Daytona 500, Bayne was instantly labeled a restrictor-plate master. However, his results have not always supported that reputation. Through 12 starts at Talladega, Bayne has only two top 10s and an average finish of 26th. Yet one of those top 10s came in last year’s Spring Talladega race, where Bayne led 22 laps. He has also earned three top 10s in his four most recent trips to Daytona.
If Bayne has his restrictor-plate mojo back, Talladega could be a good race for the No. 6 team.
Roush-Fenway Racing has an opportunity to silence its critics. While wins do not seem immanent for the organization, they could become a more realistic possibility if the team can get its cars up to speed. The next few weeks will provide some great chances to show off that speed and cement Stenhouse and Bayne’s status as playoff contenders.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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