The winds of change appeared to be blowing pretty fiercely last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
And we're not talking about the gusts of wind that drivers said they had to account for during the running of the Samsung 500.
After opening the 2011 Sprint Cup season in rather dominating fashion -- with Fords essentially prepared by Roush Fenway Racing winning two of the first three races and driver Carl Edwards firmly establishing his No. 99 team as a legitimate championship contender -- the Ford camp was given reason to pause over the next three races. (Yes, Trevor Bayne won the season-opening Daytona 500 in a Wood Brothers Racing machine, but the Wood brothers now get most of their parts and pieces and technical information from the Roush camp).
Anyway, the strong starts by Bayne and Edwards were overshadowed in the weeks that followed by the accomplishments of others. Kyle Busch won at Bristol in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and Kevin Harvick followed that up with back-to-back victories in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on totally different tracks at the big two-mile Auto Club Speedway in California and at yet another short track in Martinsville.
Throw in Jeff Gordon's victory in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy in the second race of the season at Phoenix, and you get the idea. Were the Fords really back? Maybe the Ford camp in general and the Roush Fenway group in particular, which looked so strong right out of the gate, wasn't quite as ready to step up and challenge the big boys from Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing as it had seemed at first this season.
After Texas, those doubts have been erased. Not only did Matt Kenseth snap a long drought by winning the race in his No. 17 Ford, but Roush Fenway placed a total of four drivers in the top seven. Edwards battled his own sour stomach and an ill-handling race car to finish third, Greg Biffle finished fourth and David Ragan, who earlier won the first pole of his career, followed up a strong eighth-place run at Martinsville with a seventh at TMS.
These Fords aren't just showing power in their "new" FR-9 engines, which were years in the making. Now they're showing staying power in the championship race as well.
"I am really proud of what we have been able to do in 2011," Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush told reporters Sunday in Texas. "We tuned up our engine with Ford's help over the winter and got a new Ford nose [for the car]. Everybody got a new nose this year, but our new nose is better than our old nose and we have our FR-9 engine up to speed. All of that is going well."
Long time coming
If the entire body of work from 2010 is taken under consideration, it's hard to argue with the overall results for Roush Fenway. By closing strong -- Biffle won once and Edwards twice in the last eight races, while Kenseth was solid and steady -- the triumvirate of Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth ended up fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the final standings.
But they never really were seriously involved in the championship-contending discussion in the year that belonged instead to drivers Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick and their respective organizations. In fact, they hadn't been a part of that conversation since 2008, when Edwards won a series-high nine races and placed second in the points behind Johnson, trailed by Biffle in third.
And that was rather shocking, especially to the proud Roush and his stable drivers.
Roush has said that his company spent too much time looking for the next home run instead of trying to find small gains a little at a time. When they missed on the home run, they kept falling further and further behind the teams that concentrated on, and frequently discovered, the small gains. In the end, perhaps the FR-9 engine, which they were slow to move to because of concerns about reliability, will be the home run they were seeking all along.
All the quiet Kenseth knows is that it feels good to win again -- and to feel like he'll have that chance virtually every week no matter what track he's running on. He even dared to say that his win last Saturday night under the Texas moon was bigger than his win in the rain-shortened Daytona 500 in 2009.
"Winning was huge for me," Kenseth told reporters in Texas. "In a way it was, from a racing standpoint, bigger than Daytona. Obviously it wasn't a bigger win, but that is what you have to do every week and you only [restrictor] plate race four times [in a season]."
In the mix
Kenseth won at Auto Club Speedway for back-to-back wins to open that 2009 season, then went 76 races before getting to visit Victory Lane again. This one obviously has a different feel.
"You keep working at it and hopefully you have more chances to win," Kenseth said. "This gives us a lot of confidence and it is a big relief. It has been a long time and we have been having fun at the race track the last couple months of last year and this year. It feels like we are back in contending form."
Edwards knows the feeling. He also is wary of how fleeting that wonderful feeling can be. He had it in 2008, then wandered through winless wilderness himself until finding it again the last two races in 2010.
That's why he was a little nervous after the Roush Fenway gang got outperformed by the Chevys and Toyotas at Martinsville, where Edwards struggled to an 18th-place finish. He was hoping his fast start to this season -- which included not only a win at Las Vegas but also second-place efforts in the Daytona 500 and at Bristol -- was not a mirage.
Now he's fairly certain it wasn't, and so is the rest of the NASCAR world.
"We are coming out of here with the points lead and with a teammate in Victory Lane, so it has been a good trip to Texas for us," Edwards said. "I was a little nervous after Martinsville and we talked about that. We came here and ran like we did at Vegas and there were times all the Roush cars were right there. Our cars are good right now and we are enjoying it. We just have to keep it going."
After Saturday's Texas-sized proof that they probably can on the intermediate-style tracks that matter most in the Chase, Roush may soon be staring at his best real chance to capture a championship since his organization last did it with drivers Kenseth and Kurt Busch in 2003 and 2004, respectively.