Roush Fenway Racing was once among the fiercest teams on the track. They were so packed with talent that NASCAR made a rule to limit the size of teams in response to their five-car organization.
Their performance was on the rise last year, but that may have come to a crashing halt on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
For a while, when the series went to a 2-mile track, they knew Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, or Carl Edwards would be one of the challengers for the win.
But as other teams caught up to them in performance, Roush witnessed an erosion of talent. Burton left the organization midway through the 2004 season.
Martin semi-retired at the end of 2006. He would later return to run a couple seasons full-time for Hendrick Motorsports and then semi-retired again.
Kenseth left Roush in 2012 to join Joe Gibbs Racing; Edwards joined at him JGR in 2016.
Each time the team was forced to change, they seemed to lose a little talent. By 2015 they were down to three teams with Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind the wheel. Two years later, they were down to two teams. When Biffle left, they didn’t bother replacing him.
That put the weight of the organization on the shoulders of Stenhouse, who was the more seasoned of the two drivers.
It also put a spotlight on Bayne. He would have to improve if he wanted to keep his job.
Neither driver was up to the task and as the performance diminished, so did the sponsorship dollars.
Rebuilding began in 2019. Ryan Newman replaced Bayne in the No. 6 and while he did not dominate the top 10, he radically improved the team’s performance. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.
The spotlight swung to Stenhouse, who was informed he would not return with the team midway through the season so room could be made for Chris Buescher.
This year was supposed to be the season we saw if Roush could continue to rebuild. Those best-laid plans went awry on the last lap of the 2020 Daytona 500 when Newman was bump-drafted into a spin while racing for the win. The ensuing accident sent him to the hospital and out of the car for the last three races.
The severity of Newman’s head injury has never been announced. Both he and the organization are keeping the information private. And while fans should certainly appreciate the driver’s need for privacy, fantasy owners are uncertain what to do with Roush Fenway Racing.
On paper, the swap between Buescher and Stenhouse seems like a lateral move. Buescher needed the experience of Newman to help improve the performance of the No. 17. And that experience was going to be the most impactful with Newman serving as both teammate and coach.
Newman was at Phoenix in the last race before the COVID-19 break and one can assume he was involved in the discussion about car setups. But if he is not in the cockpit and experiencing the 2020 aero rules by the seat of his pants, he can only provide so much input.
For now, the team roster resembles 2016–2018 when Roush was at their lowest.
Buescher has promise, but it’s unfulfilled.
And so far all players have really seen out of Newman’s temporary replacement Ross Chastain is unbridled enthusiasm. Both drivers have challenged for top-10s in cars capable of providing them, but their best finish on an unrestricted, intermediate speedway was a 14th by Buescher at Vegas.
Since we don’t know when (or if) Newman will return, it is difficult to make plans for Roush except on a week-to-week basis. Of course, this long extended break for the pandemic is giving Newman additional weeks to recover. Current plans seem to be for NASCAR to return to action by Memorial Day and the Coke 600. That will be a hiatus of about 14 weeks for the injured driver.
Unfortunately, even then it will take several weeks to see how Newman responds to the new car. For the moment, Roush remains in a holding pattern and should only be considered on weeks when Buescher shows a lot of speed in prelims.