Owner Jack Roush's plane crash sent a shock through his resurgent racing team
Jack Roush had every reason to expect his 60th birthday to be one of his happiest. After a miserable 2001 season in which the four Winston Cup cars he owns won just twice and none of his drivers finished higher than 10th in the points standings, his stable was on a roll. Matt Kenseth had won two of the season's first nine races, and all four Roush drivers were in the top 11 in the points race.
Late last Friday afternoon Kenseth was the final driver to qualify for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega, putting his Ford on the grid in the 37th spot. Barely an hour later, approximately 100 miles away, Roush was celebrating his birthday by flying an experimental light plane near Troy, Ala., when the aircraft hit a power line and crashed upside down in a pond. Roush was pulled from the plane by a retired Marine with search and rescue experience who lived near the crash site and who resuscitated him before paramedics arrived. As of Monday afternoon Roush was in serious condition at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Medical Center.
It was a shocking blow to an organization that was finally beginning to gel. In the off-season Roush had shaken up his teams, removing crew chief Jimmy Fen-nig from Mark Martin's car because he felt that Martin and Fen-nig, who had been together for more than five years, had become too set in their ways. Roush also thought that having a young driver, Kurt Busch, 23, working with a young crew chief, Ben Leslie, 29, was a bad idea, so he put Fen-nig on Busch's car and Leslie on Martin's—a move that immediately paid off. Martin, who finished 12th in the 2001 standings (his worst finish in 13 years), is currently ninth. Busch, who was 27th as a rookie last year, is fourth.
Roush largely left the other two cars, driven by Jeff Burton and Kenseth, alone. Burton, who finished 10th last year, has remained steady, standing 11th after Talladega. Kenseth, meanwhile, has transformed himself from a sophomore flop into a title contender. The Wisconsin native beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year honors in 2000, then failed to finish better than fourth in a race in 2001. This year, though, the 30-year-old has four top five finishes, including wins at Rockingham and Texas, and is second in points, 109 behind series leader Sterling Marlin. "There isn't one magic thing," says Kenseth. "We've improved a little bit in a lot of areas, and that's turned into a pretty good-sized gain."
One of the most significant gains has been in engine performance. The Roush operation struggled to find horsepower last year, but this year it has gotten help from an unlikely source: NASCAR. In an effort to control expenditures, the sanctioning body instituted a rule requiring teams to use the same engine in qualifying as in a race, placing a premium on durability—a hallmark of Roush's teams.
But last Friday's crash makes Kenseth's already unclear future murkier. (The highly coveted Kenseth was rumored to be on the move after last season, and his contract runs out after this season.) At least Roush, who has never won a Winston Cup championship, has delegated more responsibility to the crew chiefs, so daily operations shouldn't be slowed in the short run by his absence. "He lets us go do our deal," says Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's crew chief. "His aim is to give us the money and the equipment to win races, and he does that." For now Team Roush will be racing with extra incentive, and heavy hearts.
NFL Rivalry NASCAR-bound?
One of the tastiest rumors making its way through the garage at Talladega over the weekend had Tony Stewart being recruited by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to drive for a two-car operation that would be run by Jones and Andy Petree, who owns the two cars currently driven by Bobby Hamilton and Mike Wallace. The beauty of such a raid is that Stewart drives for Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls coaching the Washington Redskins.
Alas, the chances that the bitter NFC East rivalry will spill over into NASCAR immediately are remote. Stewart and Gibbs were quick to put the kibosh on the rumor, and Jones and Petree, who have acknowledged that they are discussing the formation of a racing team, had no comment.