RCR, Roush Fenway struggle with lackluster start to season
RCR, Roush Fenway showed promise, but have struggled in the first races of 2011
Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch seem to have tempered their notoriously short fuses
Look for champ Jimmie Johnson to take the checkers Sunday at Las Vegas
1. Last season, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing combined to fill one half of the 12-driver Chase field. The teams finished with the third -- Childress' Kevin Harvick -- and fourth -- RFR's Carl Edwards -- drivers in the final standings. It seemed to signal these teams were not just back, but were poised to contend for a Cup title in 2011.
So far, Richard Childress's and Jack Roush's teams share another common thread: Overall the teams had more setbacks than any of the sports' other powers through the first two stops on the schedule.
Roush Fenway had a shot at winning the Daytona 500 twice before David Ragan flubbed the restart and Edwards was held off. Edwards also had the fastest car at Phoenix before Kyle Busch sent it to the garage (more on that later). In all, RFR has combined for one top-10 finish and has one driver currently in the top 12, both coming courtesy of Edwards, while Matt Kenseth is 23rd in points; Ragan is 25th and Greg Biffle sits 28th.
RCR has faced a rash of bad luck as Jeff Burton and Harvick blew engines at Daytona and Clint Bowyer was involved in a late crash and at Phoenix, Bowyer and Burton's days were derailed by wrecks. While Harvick rebounded with a fourth-place finish in Arizona, it still leaves last year's Chase participants 21st (Bowyer), 22nd (Harvick) and 32nd (Burton) in the standings.
However, there are reasons to believe a turnaround is right around the corner amid these stalwart organizations' puzzling starts
Roush Fenway had three cars among the top-11 in the starting grid at Phoenix, including the pole with Edwards, so that speed that fueled its late-season surge in '10 is still there and Edwards does look every bit the challenger to Jimmie Johnson's throne that we believed he would be.
For Childress' part, it did put all four of its cars in the top 10s in the Duels at Daytona, including Burton's victory, and nobody can expect the racing gods to play havoc on RCR all season. Plus, let's not downplay what a revelation Paul Menard has been for this team. While many speculated whether RCR should add a fourth car again, and whether Menard, who had two top-5s in 147 Cup starts coming into the season, was the best choice, he's a team-high 11th in points and leads RCR by completing all but one lap this season.
But it's hard not to sift through the points standings, even at this early juncture and wonder just how fast these powers can remedy these starts. Overcoming one bad day in a new points system that penalizes poor finishes more than the old format seems bad enough, let alone make up for consecutive bad days. Under the new structure, last place gets 2.3 percent (one point) of the base points (43) awarded to a race winner, while under the old structure, first place earned 185 points without bonuses, while last place received 18.4 percent of the winner's total (34 points).
While it's certain Childress and Roush's Chase threats will eventually climb back up the ladder, how long will it take? It's an interesting subplot, and a strong indication of just how tough the points gaps in this new scoring system are to overcome.
2. Have Kyle Busch and Edwards gone soft? Their antics, or lack thereof in Phoenix, certainly make you wonder whether they've tempered their mean streaks.
During Saturday's Nationwide race, Edwards challenged eventual winner Busch as they battled over the final 20 laps. While Edwards may have traded paint with Busch, he never tried to push him out of the way. It's a stark departure from the Edwards who notoriously showed little hesitation in taking out Brad Keselowski for a win last season at Gateway.
A day later, Busch drove through Edwards on a bizarre move on Lap 59 of the Cup race, sending a car that was on the pole to the garage for repairs. Busch apologized profusely after the race, and was affected during it, as he pitted early as he pulled up behind Edwards, after he eventually got his No. 99 Ford back on the track.
So have these notoriously head-strong drivers matured? Edwards already has one child and another on the way; Busch is recently married. It may be, more than anything, that these two know all too well what the other is capable of.
Let's not forget this about 2008. A refresher: Busch wrecked Edwards for a Nationwide win at Richmond, for which Edwards retaliated at Bristol, knocking Busch out of the way for the Cup victory, then Busch smacked into Edwards' car after the checkered flag. Considering it escalated to the point where they both landed on probation, maybe they'd just prefer to avoid a replay.
You have to give Busch credit for being quick to apologize and diffuse the situation before it escalated. The last thing he wants is to have to drive worried, wondering whether Edwards is going to pay him back for spoiling the Phoenix pole sitter's day. Likewise, you had to be impressed with the way a calm Edwards gave Busch the benefit of the doubt while his No. 99 was under repair, saying "hopefully that was an inadvertent move on Kyle's part. I'll talk to him about it and we'll deal with that accordingly." After making it back on the track, he avoided returning the favor, letting the No. 18 go by "after about 20 laps," Busch said.
But signs of growth? The verdict is still out. At some point this season, Edwards is going to seek retribution. How and when he does it will tell us much more than Edwards' demeanor Sunday did, and whether or not Busch lets that be the end of it will give us a better indication of if we're really seeing a new Kyle.
11, 9 -- Allmendinger's finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, respectively. Putting him fourth in the points standings.
April 26, 1987 -- The last time the No. 43 car was this high in the standings, with Richard Petty at the wheel.
41 -- Percentage of drivers in the Chase era who were sitting above the cutoff line two weeks into the season but weren't one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the playoff.
Jimmie Johnson. Sure, it's the Busch Bros. town, but in Vegas, the house always wins, and with four career wins in nine races and an average finish of 10th, Five-Time is about as close to the house as it gets at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.