Winless in 2010, the Fords of RFR, with the exception of Greg Biffle's third-place finish at the Daytona 500, haven't even come close to taking a checkered flag in the first 14 races. In fact, dating back to RFR's last win in March 2009, the team's four drivers -- Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan -- have gone a total of 192 starts without reaching Victory Lane. It's a stunning drought for a team whose drivers finished second in the final points standings in 2005 (Biffle), 2006 (Kenseth) and 2008 (Edwards).
So what's wrong? The biggest issue, according to team owner Jack Roush, is that the team's engineers simply haven't done as good a job as other teams in analyzing track simulation data and wind tunnel data and then applying that information to the setup of their cars. "This year, we have arrived at the racetrack and unloaded with simulated strategies and set-ups that have not been as good as our competitors," Roush said earlier this week. "We are starting off with not as good a set-up in the car based on the simulations and are looking to fill that void."
A glass-half-full kind of guy, Roush likes to point to the fact that three of his drivers -- Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth -- are currently in the top 12 in points and would qualify for the Chase if it started today. Roush is adamant that his team isn't that far off, that it can gain ground on the two teams that are dominating the sport right now, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. But in NASCAR, as in stick-and-ball sports, it's hard to play catch up. It's especially difficult now because NASCAR no longer allows teams to test at racetracks during the week.
"I have talked to NASCAR about letting some of the testing come back," Roush said. "Right now, if you don't have a simulation as good as the next man's simulation, it does not matter how good your driver, crew chief or engine is, you won't get around the racetrack. Until you sort out what you need at that track, you are playing from a point of disadvantage. I think we should have less reliance on simulations and we would do that if we were able to go test on the tire and racetrack in close proximity of the race."
All valid points, but Roush can't do that now, and that's a big reason he's in such a hole as the Sprint Cup series heads to Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., for Sunday's 400-mile race. RFR is the flagship team for Ford, whose headquarters are less than 50 miles from the track, and on Sunday many of the heavies from the company will be trackside, which is why Roush always views this race as one of the most important of the season. He's owned MIS in the past -- his drivers have won here a record 11 times -- but Roush has only one victory at the two-mile track in the last five starts.
Can he get it done on Sunday? Two of his drivers are among the five I'll be watching closely when the green flag drops.
1. Carl Edwards
Currently ninth in the standings, Edwards has been uncharacteristically quiet this season. In his last six starts he hasn't finished lower than 16th or higher than fifth. He's currently riding a 50-race winless streak, but history is on his side. Back in 2007 he snapped a 52-race winless streak at Michigan. Edwards' hallmark skill always has been his ability to win races on intermediate-length tracks like MIS -- that's why he'll be a contender in the Chase, because five of the 10 tracks in the playoffs are intermediate in distance -- and I expect him to be a serious player on Sunday.
2. Matt Kenseth
Like all the Ford-powered drivers, Kenseth will carry the new FR9 engine on Sunday. Roush gushes about its reliance and slight increase in horsepower, and it's telling that he waited for this race -- again, one that he always circles on the schedule -- to have all of his drivers use it. Could this possibly turn the team's fortunes around? Absolutely.
So far in 2010 Kenseth has run a tick better than his teammates. He's fourth in the points and, like Edwards, should be a threat to win on Sunday. He's won at MIS twice and led laps in five of the last nine races at the track.
3. Denny Hamlin
Thus far, Hamlin has been the top driver of the 2010 season. He won his fourth race of the year last Sunday at Pocono and there's little reason to think he won't be a factor at Michigan. He's never won here, but he did finish third in this event last year. And this team just seems to get better every week.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When was the last time Little E reached Victory Lane? At Michigan on June 15, 2008. On that afternoon Earnhardt didn't have the fastest car, but he snookered the field in the game of fuel mileage. Races at Michigan tend to come down to who can save the most fuel, and Earnhardt excels at maximizing his fuel economy by getting off the gas at just the right time heading into the corners and rolling through the turns at the ideal speed.
5. Casey Mears
You wouldn't think that Mears, who has a grand total of one win in 257 starts in his career and was even out of a job earlier this season, would have a chance at winning on Sunday. But remember: He's driving the Toyota of Brian Vickers, who is out for the season with blood clots. Vickers dominated the last Michigan race, winning the pole and the race. Can Mears recreate that magic in Vickers' equipment? I doubt it, but it would be quite a comeback story if he could.
My pick on Sunday: Edwards.