Remember the 2005 season? If you're a Roush-Fenway Racing fan you almost certainly do.
That was the year the five Jack Roush-owned cars accounted for exactly half of the then-10-man Chase for the Sprint (then NEXTEL) Cup. Greg Biffle won a season-high six races, Carl Edwards burst onto the scene with four wins, Kurt Busch picked up three trophies, and Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin won a race apiece. Biffle and Edwards tied for second in the standings, 35 points (under the old point payout system, roughly eight points or so under the current position-based system) behind Tony Stewart. Martin was fourth in the final rundown, with Kenseth seventh. Busch, of course, was suspended by Roush for the last two races to end his tenure with the team and wound up tenth.
Combined during that '05 season, the Roush team produced 61 top-five finishes and 93 top-10s in 180 total races. Their cars were backed by such high-profile companies as Pfizer, Office Depot, Scott's, the Army National Guard, 3M, Newell-Rubbermaid, Diageo (Crown Royal and Smirnoff Ice), and DeWalt Power Tools.
Oh, how far the mighty have fallen.
Tuesday's announcement that 3M, the last remaining sponsor from that list still associated with Roush, will be moving to Hendrick Motorsports and Jeff Gordon in 2015 was just the latest blow to an organization that seems to inch closer and closer to irrelevance and also-ran status with each passing news item about them. You may be thinking, "Surely Roush-Fenway will never become just a group of also-rans." Well, reckon anyone ever said that about Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers?
As recently as 2011, Roush-Fenway fielded four race winning teams and tied for the championship with Edwards, though more wins sent the crown to their old nemesis Stewart. Since that gutting defeat - giving them the unfortunate distinction of being the first organization to lose a top-level NASCAR title on a tiebreaker - Roush has won ten times with Edwards, Biffle, and the departed Kenseth. Ten victories over a two-and-a-half-year span might seem like a lot for most organizations, but there was a time when Roush was expected to push towards 10 wins in a single year (accomplishing the feat in 2005 and 2008). This year they have won only twice, both times with the soon-to-depart Edwards. Biffle's runner-up finish at Talladega, where a last-lap caution prevented him from making a run at leader Denny Hamlin, is about the closest they've come to victory lane otherwise.
The prospects for 2015 seem dim compared to the organization's grand standards. Though Biffle is a long-time fixture near the front and a marketable figure (confirmed by his starring role in the "NASCAR Green" advertisements), he will be leading a team featuring the as-yet unproven duo of youngsters Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Since Bayne's storybook win in the 2011 Daytona 500, the trio has accounted for a grand total of three Cup wins - all by Biffle. Stenhouse, whom many (myself included) anticipated would become an almost immediate force in the high-horsepower Sprint Cup cars given his open wheel background and prowess in the lower-power Nationwide cars (where he was a two-time champion), has still yet to break through as a weekly contender. Bayne, meanwhile, has been running part-time for the Woods while racing a full-time Nationwide Series car for Roush. It is hard to make an impression when you're only dropping in ever so often, and the venerable No. 21 is unquestionably a tick behind in performance on most tracks (the obvious exception being the restrictor plate venues). Still, Bayne's grand potential and his Cinderella-like coming out party inevitably caused the expectations to be raised, and he's fallen short thus far.
To be fair, things aren't entirely bleak for Roush-Fenway, despite the sponsorship and driver changes. Rumors swirled Tuesday that even with losing the 3M backing, Biffle's No. 16 Ford is fully sold for all 36 races. Team vice president Steve Newmark seemed to indicate similarly when he tweeted "We have some exciting '15 partnership announcements for the No 16 coming in the next few weeks and look forward to sharing soon." Though Nationwide is leaving Stenhouse's car to partner with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015, he will pickup the Fastenal sponsorship that had backed Edwards since 2012. In the best position sponsorship-wise, at least at this time, is Bayne. His Nationwide Series sponsor Advocare has committed to a full slate in '15 and beyond.
The return of the legendary Mark Martin, who won 35 times for Roush and finished second in points four times, as a driving coach will also be of benefit. If anyone can pump up the two youngsters and get them to harness their seemingly limitless potential, it is Martin. Who knows, he might even be able to revitalize the 45-year-old Biffle, who has still shown that when he has a race car up under him he can be a force on the track.
The more pressing matter is the issue of performance and getting Biffle the car he needs. He and Edwards are two of the sport's best pure talents. Yet both have been routinely far outpaced not just by their rivals at Chevrolet and Toyota but also their compadres at Ford, Team Penske. The horsepower is certainly there, as Roush's cars use the same Doug Yates-built motors as Penske chauffeurs (and serious title contenders) Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Whatever the Roush group is missing in their cars, it is a glaring deficiency that unquestionably played a big role in Edwards finally giving up on winning a title with the only Cup organization he has known and moving on, presumably following Kenseth into one of Joe Gibbs Racing's Toyotas. Biffle had the opportunity to move elsewhere too, but he re-signed with Roush in a testament to the kind of loyalty seldom seen in modern-day sports of any kind.
Adding the exodus of sponsors and perhaps their most-talented driver ever this side of Martin on top of those performance woes seems to leave the Roush team perilously close to falling off the cliff into mediocrity. They can still be pulled back to safety if they can figure out why their cars, which handle so well down the straightaways, won't behave in the turns in a manner that allows them to keep up with the Penske boys and the rest of the top contenders. Even if they did fall off, no one will question Jack Roush's resilience and ability to fight his way back from any kind of adversity. He is one of the toughest son of a guns in our sport, and it will take a lot of dirt to keep him down.
NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is better off with Roush-Fenway Racing as a viable force. Yes, sometimes it is hard to like The Cat in the Hat, but he is easy to love as one of our great characters and a true inspiration for all he has fought through. Having his team contending for wins and championships - especially with Biffle, who is in a race against Father Time as well as in a battle with youngster Austin Dillon to be the first man to claim all three of NASCAR's national titles - is good for our sport. No matter who you root for and whether or not Jack has pointed a verbal needle or two at your team, your driver, or - especially in the case of Toyota fans - your car, we should all be pulling for him inside at least a little bit that he gets this deal turned around.