The debut of the sixth-generation NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car (Gen-6 in shorthand) has driven home a new emphasis on brand identity and a showroom-style look, but has also left teams with a back-to-the-drawing-board mentality in a busy offseason of prepping their new rides.
Teams will have a difficult time hanging their hats on their 2012 accomplishments. No one knows this more ahead of the season's biggest race than Jack Roush.
Roush Fenway Racing enters the Daytona 500 as the defending champion after Greg Biffle helped push then-teammate Matt Kenseth to his second win in the Great American Race. That triumph kicked off a season of success at Daytona and Talladega, where engine restrictions level the playing field and demand even more finesse from crews.
Kenseth's No. 17, which Ricky Stenhouse Jr. inherited in the offseason, was at the head of the class with two wins and two third-place finishes at the four restrictor-plate races last year. Now with Gen-6 cars emerging from the Roush Fenway stables, the team won't have laurels to tout.
"I'm guardedly optimistic that we can return to that form, but I will not be surprised if we are not as good this year as we were in 2011 and 2012," Roush said after presenting his roster of drivers at the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Those were incredible years where if things had broken for us, we could've won virtually every restricted race we went to and that's unusual for me for Daytona and Talladega."
Testing the new car over three days at NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway did little to bolster the still-guarded hopes of the venerable team owner, who called the test "inconclusive." Biffle, now the senior statesman at Roush Fenway, suggested that the team may already be playing catch-up for the Daytona 500.
"My honest opinion is, we've lost our edge that we've had over the last two or three years when it comes to restrictor plates," Biffle said. "Maybe we'd gotten that old car tweaked and dialed in, but we were mediocre at best the whole time in Daytona."
A mediocre review was hard to process after Biffle topped the speed charts in the sixth and final session of Preseason Thunder testing, a half-tenth of a second better than the Joe Gibbs Racing pair of Kenseth and Kyle Busch. But Biffle was quick to note that the unofficial stat sheet shouldn't be taken at face value.
"We went to full qualifying (mode), everything we had," Biffle said. "We even had a qualifying engine. We had everything -- I mean, this would've been pushing out for 500 qualifying. We were the fastest. But not everybody had that, not every last bit. My fast lap probably wasn't comparative to the second-, third-, fourth-place car because they didn't have as much done as mine."
So is the outlook all gloom and doom for a Roush Fenway repeat? Not if newly minted vice president of competition Robbie Reiser can help it. Roush's longtime right-hand man has kept the team's Fords competitive through a multitude of changes as NASCAR's vehicles have evolved. This latest change may be the biggest challenge yet.
"The pressure's on us, right?" Reiser joked. "We've had a really good speedway program the last few years, so the pressure's on to keep that up and we've been working pretty hard on that. But this car here has thrown us a curve that we've got to work on everything. Otherwise, we come out and run strong at one venue and not at the others. Speedway racing is a very different thing."
The nature of racing at Daytona and Talladega typically has a wild-card element to it, but Roush Fenway's preparation had given the team an advantage at two tracks where even the most incremental advantages are sought after. Even if the team's grade so far with the Gen-6 car is incomplete, Reiser seems confident that Roush Fenway can earn high superspeedway marks again soon.
"You know, you always go down there with a fleet of cars ? there's some that run and some that don't and you've got to come back and work on them and change them around," Reiser said. "That's kind of where we are right now, and if we don't start as strong as we need to be on the speedways, by God, we're going to go back and work on it and try to fix it. What I saw at Daytona testing and what I saw at Charlotte testing with our downforce cars, I think we're going to come out of the box pretty strong."