Jack Roush doesn't want to hear about pressure. He doesn't listen to the talk that maybe Carl Edwards being pegged as the favorite coming into the 2009 season has anything to do with his slow (relative to expectations) start.
"I don't think pressure or lack of pressure on Carl … makes any difference at all," Roush said. "On slow news days, people can write about what all the emotions that somebody can have. People that are writing about that really don't understand. These guys are professionals. My guys are all professionals. They get up every day to do everything they can."
Instead, Roush has a more tangible reason why Edwards – who by nearly a two-to-one vote was pegged by the NASCAR media corps as the favorite to win this year's Sprint Cup title – has yet to win a race this season.
It's because of chemistry.
"The cars would not be as close together if there were more things that the engineers and the crew chiefs could delve into and vary from one another," Roush begins to explain. "So the number of things that you can change now is so limited that you really don't have the chance to have the disparity that we had in cars 10 years ago."
He explains how the vise on technology has whittled the difference between winning and losing down to finding the "trick of the race."
"You're down to pit stops; you're down to the calls of two tires, four tires, no tires; different air pressures. Do you make a wedge adjustment, a D-wedge, rubbers in, rubbers out, rear spring, track-bar position?" Roush wondered aloud, rattling off just about every in-race adjustment possible, which if you count, add up to just three things: tires, wedge and springs.
It's not much, but it's all teams have anymore, and making the right call is the difference between winning and losing.
"The quality of those decisions – is it either at or above the level of the competitor's decisions, or is below it?" Roush asked, explaining the problem he's been handed to solve. "So we're working on chemistry in the areas where some of our decisions haven't been as good as we'd like."
For Edwards, those chemistry issues have largely played out on pit road, most notably the poor final stop at Texas which definitely cost him the lead and probably the win. A change in crew personnel followed, but some of the problems have persisted.
Last Sunday at Pocono, Edwards overcame another pit-road miscue (his gas man didn't get a full tank of fuel in on one stop) to lead the most laps only to finish second to Tony Stewart. Stewart used some magic of his own to win his first race of the season, running 40 laps – 10 more than normal – on a single tank of fuel.
"This sport's tough," Edwards said. "If you look at the guy that won Sunday – you know, Tony, leading the points – he's had great runs. Look how long it took them, even the way they're performing, you look at how long it took them to win a race.
"You have to perform like we did on Sunday, you know, for three or four races before you're gonna win one of 'em," Edwards continued. "Trust me, I want to win so badly. And even though it's only been 13 or 14 races, it feels like forever."
It's been 14, actually, a number easy to calculate considering Edwards won the final race of 2008 and two of three before that. His finish, not Johnson winning his third straight Cup championship, proved to be the deciding factor in the preseason media vote.
That a head-to-head battle between the two hasn't materialized yet speaks more to the length of the Cup season – 36 races spread out over 10 months – than to either's performance.
However, Edwards and everyone else at Roush Fenway Racing has to be concerned by the fact that the Hendrick Motorsports brigade is outpacing the field right now. Despite all of Roush's resources, they have not been able to keep up with Hendrick, which supports the top four drivers in the Sprint Cup standings.
"I think that Roush Fenway is off just a tick this year – not much – but it seems like we're not quite as competitive as we were last year just ever so slightly," Greg Biffle said. "I don't think it's that we've slid down the slope any; it's that the other guys have gotten a few steps up the slope and gotten a little better. We haven't really gotten any better. We're where we were last year, but we need to improve that, so it's a constant improvement – and I don't think our graph is quite as good as some of those other teams that have beat us a little bit."
Said Edwards: "You run really well at places and you think, 'We'll not mess with that,' and everybody else kind of catches up or surpasses you a little bit and then you have to go back to the drawing board and catch up again. That's the sport. It goes up and down."
Way back in February, Johnson was asked about not being the preseason favorite. He didn't take it as a snub, but passed it off as nothing more than hype. And he's right.
The only thing that matters now is whether Roush and Edwards get those chemistry issues ironed out. Johnson, after all, isn't going to lose the championship. He's too good for that. Someone is going to have to take it. And to do that, they'll have to be at their very best.