He walked briskly down pit road at Michigan International Speedway, moving along with the quickness of someone pounding the pavement in Midtown Manhattan on his way to work. Aside from a few lacerations on his head and the presence of a back-brace underneath his white collared shirt, Jack Roush, wearing sunglasses, looked like he always does at the track: focused, determined and not in the mood for small talk.
"It's nice to be back," Roush said to fans that gave him a standing ovation as he neared the No. 16 Ford of Greg Biffle -- one of his drivers -- who was about to head onto the track for qualifying. "Lucky to be alive."
You can forgive Roush for feeling like he's been given a third shot at life. After all, this is a man who now has survived two plane crashes and lived to tell about both. He miraculously survived a wreck in April 2002 when, while piloting a small experimental aircraft, he hit a wire at about 75 feet and plunged into a small pond. A retired Marine who had experience in underwater rescue happened to be about 100 yards away in his house at the time Roush fell from the sky and rescued him.
Then, on July 27, Roush experienced a hard landing at an airfield in Oshkosh, Wisc. His plane broke in two, but Roush walked away -- though he lost his left eye and suffered a compression fracture in his back, which were his two worst injuries. But as I wrote in the magazine this week, the correlation between Roush's crash and his team's rise has been absolutely remarkable. Because since Roush nearly met his Maker on that warm summer evening in Wisconsin, his team has been the class of Sprint Cup Series -- a trend that I think will continue Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
How hot has Roush Fenway Racing been in recent weeks? Biffle won at Pocono four days after Roush's crash to end the team's winless streak that lasted about a year-and-a-half. Then, last weekend at Michigan, the Roush Fords finished third (Carl Edwards), fourth (Biffle), and fifth (Matt Kenseth).
Will they dominate again this week? Absolutely. Here are five drivers -- three of whom hail from Roush -- I'll be watching closely when the engines fire on Saturday.
1. Matt Kenseth
You'd think Kenseth has no shot at the championship, the way he talks about how much he's struggled this season. Yet look at the standings and Kenseth is ninth in the points and now appears a safe bet to make the Chase.
What's more, Kenseth, whose hallmark skill is that he's always at his best at the end of races, had one of the top runs of the season last weekend and now he heads to a track where he has two career wins and four top-10s in his last five starts. I don't think he'll win on Saturday -- that distinction will go to one of his teammates -- but it says here he'll piece together another top-5 finish.
2. Greg Biffle
I had a long chat with Biffle last Friday at Michigan after qualifying. He is perhaps the most honest, forthright driver in the sport -- which has long made him one of the go-to guys for me -- and he made it abundantly clear that he believes Roush Fenway has not only caught the heavyweights of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, but also that his team has passed them.
At this point, I agree. Biffle said the team discovered something in the front section of the car before the race in Chicago on July 10, and that's made all the difference in the setup. Now, for the first time since early in the 2009 season, the Roush cars can roll through the corners as fast as any other team in the sport -- probably faster, actually.
Biffle has never won at Bristol in 15 starts. He's finished fourth here in the last two races, but on Saturday I think he'll do better than that. He's my pick to win.
3. Carl Edwards
Like his teammates Biffle (11th in points) and Kenseth (10th), Edwards (eighth) is going to make the Chase. And I think he'll get at least one victory before the playoff starts in New Hampshire on Sept. 19, probably at Atlanta on Sept. 5.
You could make an argument that Edwards, even though he hasn't reached Victory Lane since November 2008, is actually the favorite to win it all this fall. After all, he's long been considered the top racer in the series on 1.5-mile to 2-mile tracks, and half of the Chase venues take place at these intermediate-length venues.
Edwards should be fast on Saturday night. He's won the summer race twice at Bristol.
4. Kyle Busch
During an eight-week stretch this spring, Busch was as dominant as any other driver in NASCAR. Between his eighth-place run in Phoenix on April 10 and his second-place finish at Pocono on June 6, Busch had eight straight top-10s, including two wins. But since that afternoon in Pocono, Busch has been sub-par, cracking the top 10 just twice in nine starts. He's eighth in the standings, but right now he can't be considered a serious threat to win the Cup.
What's wrong? The main issue is that Joe Gibbs Racing simply has fallen behind Roush Fenway and Hendrick Motorsports. But Busch could bounce back at Bristol, which is one of his best tracks. Busch has three wins in 11 starts at the half-mile oval. If he's not in the top 5 as the laps wind down on Saturday, then you'll know just how severe this team's struggles are right now.
5. Kurt Busch
I spent the entire weekend at Michigan with Busch and the No. 2 team for an upcoming piece in the magazine, and one thing really struck me: This is a team that is very, very capable of winning the championship. Forget that Busch blew an engine early at Michigan -- his first blown motor of the year -- and he finished a disappointing 40th. If you watched closely, as I did, you would have seen how this team started profoundly slow in the first practice on Friday, then steadily gained speed throughout the weekend, which is very difficult to do in the Sprint Cup series in 2010.
Busch is going to be a factor in the Chase -- and he's going to be a factor on Saturday night. Bristol is his best track on the circuit. He's won more races here (five) than anywhere else NASCAR visits. This team will have an edge to it this weekend because of what happened at Michigan, and I expect Busch the older to be running with the leaders for most of Saturday night.