Roush Fenway Makes Small Steps to Improvement, But Leaves Questions After 2016

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Roush Fenway Racing took steps in the right direction in 2016, but the team’s continued struggles, loss of de-facto team leader Greg Biffle and step down the Ford pecking order with the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing leave many questions for the former powerhouse entering 2017.

If the season had ended after six months, the tale of RFR’s 2016 would have been largely optimistic.

Following the worst year in the company’s 29-year history — RFR’s zero wins, nine top 10s, 23.36 average finish, 23.8 average start and 43 laps led were all career lows — the former Ford juggernaut delivered a group of solid results to begin the 2016 season.

The team’s trio of Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Trevor Bayne all finished outside of the top 20 in the Daytona 500, but Stenhouse and Bayne provided a spark just one week later at Atlanta Motor Speedway when the duo each qualified inside of the top five. The team’s early speed didn’t completely transition to Sunday’s race, but Stenhouse (10th) did manage to bring home the team’s first top 10, while Biffle followed in 13th.

Atlanta proved to be the first race of many that told the tale of RFR’s spring and early summer, as the organization found a consistent presence in the top 15, occasionally flirting with the top five and top 10.

No one driver stole the show, at least not early on, but all three shoes contributed the occasional good showing.

Stenhouse brought home a fifth-place run at Auto Club Speedway. Bayne followed with a top five of his own three races later at Bristol Motor Speedway, then added two more top 10s at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway to establish himself as a dark horse contender to make the Chase.

One of RFR’s biggest highlights came in a race that didn’t even count – the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway. With all three drivers needing to drive their way into the All-Star Race, Biffle and Bayne used aggressive runs to claim two of the race’s three segment and earn their way into the feature, with the latter driver advancing by inches over rookie star Chase Elliott.

Neither driver took home the prize as an All-Star Race victor that night, but Bayne’s aggression and Biffle’s smooth drive led to respectable finishes of seventh and eighth, respectively, and the overall performance reminded NASCAR fans that Jack Roush’s team still had some fight left in them.

Following All-Star weekend, RFR again faded into obscurity as glimpses of hope and speed began to appear less frequently. The trio would go without a top 10 for four-straight races.

Then came Daytona, and the best weekend Roush has seen in years.

Biffle led the way early on for the team, claiming the organization’s first pole award in two years. I

The race that unfolded later in the weekend turned into a 400-mile war of attrition, but RFR managed to avoid disaster to contend into the late stages of the event.

In the end, Bayne would come home in third, with Stenhouse and Biffle following in fifth and eighth, respectively. For the first time since March 2014, all three RFR cars had finished in the top 10.

“To have a top-three finish today, it’s really a great day for us and a great day for Roush Fenway Racing and Ford,” Bayne said to NASCAR after the race. “For our organization to be on the pole this weekend, to have three cars in the top eight, two in the top-five, I think that’s kind of a landmark for us as an organization with the struggles we’ve had to get all three teams running strong on a weekend like this.”

He was too far behind in the points standings to truly contend for a Chase berth, but the result seemed to light a fire in Biffle. After scoring his first top 10 of the year, RFR’s elder statesman rattled off what would be his final two top 10s with RFR in the following two races at Kentucky Speedway (sixth) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (fifth).

At the time, it appeared that the then-46-year-old Biffle had begun a career renaissance, but following his top five at NHMS the Washington native faded back into mediocrity.

Unfortunately for RFR, save for the occasional run, Biffle’s teammates faded, too.

Looking to contend for their first Chase berths, Bayne and Stenhouse struggled down the stretch. Bayne’s final top 10 of the year would come at Watkins Glen International, where he finished ninth.

The following week, Stenhouse drove arguably the greatest race of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, delivering a special tribute scheme to the late Bryan Clauson — a former NASCAR driver and longtime friend of Stenhouse’s — to a runner-up result at Bristol.

The moment, while special, would serve as RFR’s final highlight of the regular season. The organization dropped after the run, unable to score a top 10 as both Bayne and Stenhouse failed to make the Chase.

Roush’s trio fared no better in the postseason, scoring just three finishes inside of the top 15 as they plummeted in the standings. In the end, Stenhouse, Bayne and Biffle would finish 21st, 22nd and 23rd in the standings, respectively.

The poor finish would mark the end of Biffle’s tenior with RFR, completing a 15-year relationship that yielded 19 victories and six top-10 finishes in the points standings.

With Biffle out, RFR will drop to two teams in 2017, opting to try to rebuild with their core group instead of searching for new drivers.

With Biffle out, Stenhouse becomes the team’s veteran, fitting considering he supplied three of the organization’s top five performances in 2016. For the two-time XFINITY Series champion, 2017 will bring about a continued search for speed, a Chase berth and, most importantly, victory lane.

Bayne saw the largest improvement among the organization, rising from an abysmal 29th-place 2015 compaign to contend for a Chase berth through the late summer. Still, the 2011 Daytona 500 champion has more to do to prove he can be a contender on NASCAR’s top level.

RFR has a strong pool of talent waiting in the wings. Prospect Chris Buescher earned a shocking rain-shortened victory at Pocono Raceway to lead Front Row Motorsports into their first Chase appearance. The 2015 NXS champion will move to JTG Daugherty racing in 2017, joining 2014 Chase participant A.J. Allmendinger.

The NXS also yields a strong level of ability and marketability. Though the organization delivered their first winless season since 2003, the surprising Chase run of Ryan Reed and continued growth of Darrell Wallace, Jr., provide hope that the group could step back into contention in 2017.

While there is some cause for optimism, 2017 proves difficult to forecast for RFR. The organization bettered their abysmal 2015 stats in nearly every category in 2016, including top fives (seven), top 10s (14), average finish (20.39), average start (19.3) and laps led (82). However, RFR’s early speed seemed to fade over the course of the year, and the addition of SHR to join the dominant Team Penske leave Roush’s standing within Ford’s hierarchy in question for 2017 and beyond.

In the end, 2016 wasn’t a memorable year for “The Cat in the Hat” and his Ford squad. However, it was a step in the right direction, however minor it may be, and that provides hope where 2015 inspired fear. Given how far this organization has fallen, that’s all they could truly ask for.

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