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FONTANA -- Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion, has finished first or second in five of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races dating back to last season. He sits only one point behind Kurt Busch for the points lead, but Edwards isn’t the only Roush Fenway driver who has improved from a year ago. As the series gets ready for a trip to Auto Club Speedway this weekend, car owner Jack Roush talked with Ford Racing about the keys to his organization’s turnaround.
Q. HOW DO YOU FEEL THE FIRST FEW RACES HAVE GONE FOR YOUR GROUP?
A. We’ve missed a chance to win some races. Carl missed at Daytona by just a little bit and he was taken out of competition by Kyle Busch at Phoenix, which was a disappointment, but Las Vegas was good and Bristol was not bad. David has run better and I’m happy with that. I’m anxious for him to close the deal. He got penalized and was certainly going to be a factor for a top five and could have won the Daytona 500 as easily as Trevor. He spun out during his qualifying lap at Las Vegas after being the fastest there in practice, so that was good. Matt looked good at Phoenix and he’s run real steady all of the races and Greg Biffle has shown speed, even though he got crashed at Daytona and we had our fueling pit stop problem and the things that followed that at Las Vegas. I think he was as good as Carl there and Carl won the race, so all four of our cars are running real well. The Ford Fusions, I think, are as strong if not stronger. This is my 24th year of being in NASCAR competition, and I don’t recall a year when we were stronger than this. I think if it’s not our best year, it’s certainly our best year to this point.
Q. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT HELPED TURN YOUR PERFORMANCE AROUND?
A. If we look at a year ago, our simulations were not correlating well and everybody lost confidence in the backup that we had or the support we were getting from our engineering simulation group. With Ford’s intervention and assistance, we’ve been able to get the correlations we’re looking for and everyone is real confident in what they’re doing. The manufacturing process that Robbie Reiser initiated and pursued last year has come to fruition. The field of our cars for downforce and drag and all those other metrics you look at from a body point of view are the closest they’ve ever been, and I think they’re very competitive in comparison to the field. We have a new nose this year. When we did some analysis last year, we figured out that our upper nose was handicapped and was not as competitive to what everybody else had, so we have a competitive nose now and that’s thanks to Ford for negotiating with NASCAR to get that part approved. The FR9 engine through Doug Yates and Tom Ghent’s effort, and Dave Simon’s interest to accelerate the development of that, has come to fruition. The engine is doing a nice job. The body is doing a nice job. We’ve got consistent cars and our engineering is standing tall, so it’s really a happy time for us. The cars are well driven and they’re adequately sponsored, so we’re anxious to see what we can do during the heart of this 2011 season.
Q. IT’S A CASE WHERE THERE WASN’T JUST ONE THING, IT’S A BUNCH OF SMALL THINGS THAT ADD UP TO IMPROVED PERFORMANCE, CORRECT?
A. A lot of little things have worked out. Starting last year at Chicago, we really served notice that we had our simulations to the point that they weren’t to where they are today, but they were at the point where there wasn’t really anything wrong with them. They weren’t as complete in their predictions as what we have available to us today, but they were functioning satisfactorily. The body builds that Robbie is affecting have got more weight in them for low weight ballast and more design features effecting brake cooling and radiator function. All of those things are operating at a level that’s higher than it had been when we weren’t running as well as we needed to.
Q. CARL HAS OBVIOUSLY BEEN A CUT ABOVE EVERYONE IN THE GARAGE AS OF LATE. HE’S FINISHED FIRST OR SECOND IN FIVE OF THE LAST SIX CUP RACES GOING BACK TO LAST YEAR. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HIS TEAM RIGHT NOW?
A. His relationship with Bob Osborne is at an all-time high. They’re making great chemistry and great moves together. They challenge one another a little bit from time to time, but, at the end of the day, they come down on the same side of an issue and it’s generally the right side. You can’t minimize team. The teams have got to get you out with a competitive time on pit road and the decisions for two tires, four tires or gas only versus staying out or coming in – those decisions by the crew chief have got to be quality decisions that are at least competitive with what the other people who are running around them on the race track are doing.
Q. YOU HAVE WON SEVEN TIMES AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY AND MATT HAS THREE OF THOSE VICTORIES. HOW DO YOU VIEW THIS WEEKEND?
A. The mile-and-a-half and two-mile race tracks are our meat. Even in the worst of times that’s a place when we’ve still been able to muster a great effort and in a good time like this, I think there’s certainly as much hope and expectation of a good result as there was at Las Vegas. Looking back at Bristol – although it’s different than Martinsville or Phoenix or Richmond or Loudon in terms of its layout – it is a short track and we have had great success there throughout our 24 years. We hadn’t been at the top of it in the last couple of years where we had been at our best earlier, but with putting three cars in the top 10 it was certainly reminiscent of the good old days when we could expect to be there when we unloaded and be somebody they had to chase. Kyle Busch obviously had a great car, but he had pit stops that were just a little better than the 99 all day. They were able to get Kyle out in front of Carl on that last stop. I think it’s a challenge to our pit crew that if we would have been able to get Carl out in front, I don’t think that Kyle could have caught him without wrecking him anymore than Carl felt he could pass Kyle without wrecking him.
Q. DO YOU FEEL THE TIRE CHANGE AT BRISTOL AFFECTED YOUR TEAMS MORE THAN THE OTHERS?
A. I don’t think we were quite as good through the tire change as we were before, but it was the same for everybody. I don’t really have a complaint there. There was a disaster brewing if they hadn’t changed the right side tire. Even though we didn’t come through it with as competitive a package as we did before, it was certainly good enough to have won the race and it was good enough to put three of our cars in the top 10. The thing that was really most heartening about that throughout the race itself is Carl was too loose to start with and I think they added at least three rounds of wedge and made a tire pressure change to tighten the car up throughout the race, so they started out with that new tire a lot too loose, which had not been the case with the right side tire that preceded it on Friday. But throughout the race all four of our cars were able to make dramatic improvements and made the cars more competitive at the end of the race than they were at the beginning. I know Matt and Greg came from back a ways and Carl didn’t come from as far back as the others, but he came back up and made his run at the end. That bodes well for the decision-making in the pits and the interaction between the engineers and the crew chief. There is going to be adversity. You’re not going to have a race that you can go out and set a fast time for practice, a fast time for qualifying and then win the race by a lap at the end. That’s just not going to happen in today’s world. NASCAR racing, either by design or through acts that are mindless, winds up putting stress on the teams and stress on the crews and results in creating problems you have to deal with throughout the race. The fact we were able to deal with those problems as well as we did really makes me confident of our being able to stay up where we are in terms of being in contention to win virtually every race we go to.
Q. IS THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN COMPARE HOW YOU FEEL NOW TO A YEAR AGO AT THIS TIME?
A. We have not worked harder this year than we did the year before. We’ve got basically the same group of people together this year as we did the year before. If you come back and say, ‘Was it really just the simulations and getting the stars to line up and the car build activities. Was that just enough?’ Because we haven’t made crew chief changes. We haven’t made driver changes and we haven’t made dramatic changes in the componentry of the car. It just speaks to the closeness to the competition and how fragile the packages are and how quickly you can either hit the sweet spot that allows you to trip the light fantastic without apparent difficulty or whether you just stay frustrated an inch from your goal. The thing I’m telling everybody now is to put some of this currency in the bank. Don’t read everything that everybody says about how competitive you are and how it’s a result of the work you did last winter. We didn’t work harder last winter than we did the winter before, it’s just that we’re having a better result from it for the time being, but that too will pass and we’ll have to look at the bottom of some people that are in front of us, I’m sure, before the year is over.