Chris Buescher’s Mistake

It’s difficult to predict which NASCAR prospects will bust and which ones will have long and successful careers. Even when everything goes right for a driver, sometimes they just can’t make it work at the highest level. When a driver makes a mistake, by joining the wrong team or moving up too early, the path to success becomes even harder.

After winning the 2015 XFINITY Series championship with Roush, Chris Buescher decided against staying in the second-tier series. He instead moved up to the Sprint Cup Series for 2016. However, he did not step into a Roush ride. Buescher instead signed with Front Row Motorsports, a perennial backmarker with just one win to its name. Front Row Motorsports formed a technical alliance with Roush Fenway this year, but given Roush’s recent struggles, the partnership hasn’t helped much. Buescher is currently languishing in 32nd in the Sprint Cup standings. He’s posted just two top 20 finishes on the year and sits 55 points behind 27th place teammate Landon Cassill.

Almost overnight, Buescher went from an XFINITY series star to just another Sprint Cup backmarker. Buescher has undeniable talent, but he’s still raw. He needed more time and experience in NASCAR’s lower series before moving up to the Sprint Cup. The lone bright spot in his future is that a seat at Roush may be opening up soon. Greg Biffle is NASCAR’s oldest regular driver, and is also Roush’s worst performing racer this year. If Biffle retires soon, Buescher may get a shot to prove himself in competitive equipment. However, the ride he’s in right now isn’t helping his chances.

 

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Jeff Gordon Retired: Who’s Next?

With Jeff Gordon making his final start yesterday, Nascar closed the books on an era. Gordon was Nascar’s first superstar–he helped the sport grow from a regional event to a household name. Gordon is the last driver from the early 1990’s who competed full time, and with his retirement, others may start to follow suit. Tony Stewart, who began racing in 1999. Stewart will follow Gordon out of the sport after the 2016 season. Here’s some drivers who could be headed with them in the next few years.

Greg Biffle

The oldest driver in the Nascar garage isn’t Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart–it’s Greg Biffle, who clocks in at 45 years old. Most people would expect Biffle to be much younger, but that’s because he only started racing in the Sprint Cup Series in 2002. Biffle’s late start and his historically good Roush cars have masked the fact that he’s getting up there in age. With Roush-Fenway Racing on the decline and a lack of new rides opening up in the Sprint Cup,  don’t be surprised to see Biffle be the next driver to make an exit after Stewart.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth, the 2003 champion and Biffle’s former teammate at Roush, is also getting up there in age. He’s 43 years old and has been racing in the Sprint Cup for 15 years, and is only signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through the end of 2016. Although Kenseth continues to run strong, a two race suspension for taking out Joey Logano dropped him to 15th in the points standings this year. With developmental drivers Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones waiting in the wings, don’t be surprised to see Kenseth bow out in the near future.

Brian Vickers

At first glance, Brian Vickers doesn’t look like a racer ready to hang up his helmet. He’s just 32 years old and recently signed a multi-year contract with Michael Waltrip Racing. However, as MWR closes its doors in the offseason, Vickers will be left without a ride, and more importantly, may be unable to get back on the track. Vickers has battled blood clots since 2010, when clots in his lungs forced him out of the driver’s seat at Red Bull Racing. He battled his medical issues for a long time, and only recently secured a full-time ride with now defunct MWR. However, before the 2015 season began, Vickers announced that he would miss time due to issues fixing a hole in his heart. He ended up driving just 2 races; instead, he spent time working as an analyst for NBC while he recovered. With no ride lined up and no timetable to return to the track, we might have already seen Brian Vickers’ last race.

The Decline of Roush Fenway Racing

It’s no secret that Roush-Fenway Racing is struggling. Their flagship driver, Carl Edwards, bolted for Joe Gibbs in the offseason. Ricky Stenhouse Jr, the 2 time Xfinity series champion, is looking more and more like a bust. Trevor Bayne, who once seemed so full of promise after winning the 2011 Daytona 500, has failed to crack the top 15 in 3 years, including this year’s rookie campaign with Roush. Greg Biffle, the team’s resident veteran and most competitive driver, appears ready to retire once his contract ends. Just ten years ago, Roush was the best team in Nascar. Its 5 drivers all qualified for the Chase and combined for 15 wins. What happened?

Kurt Busch (MSC)

 

Roush’s historic 2005 season was a curse in disguise. After all 5 of the team’s drivers qualified for the Chase, Nascar took steps to prevent that from ever happening again. Nascar restricted teams to running a maximum of 4 cars. This rule change affected exactly one team–Roush Racing, which was forced to shrink to 4 teams after 2009. The 2005 season was also Kurt Busch’s last ride with the team–after being pulled over for reckless driving in Phoenix, Busch was suspended and later fired and missed the last 2 races of the year. Busch bolted to Penske and Roush replaced him with the less successful and less flashy Jamie McMurray. The team’s fortunes slowly waned–Jack Roush had to get an investment from Fenway Sports Group(the owner of the Red Sox and Liverpool) in 2007.

Ragan

David Ragan at Roush (HJE)

 

Roush’s decline didn’t come just from a shrinking team. Jack Roush, traditionally regarded as an astute judge of talent, misfired on several of his picks for drivers. Jamie McMurray spent three years driving for the team after Kurt Busch left. While Busch won 12 races and a championship during his tenure, Jamie Mac took just two races and never finished in the top 15 in the points. McMurray showed flashes of potential, always threatening to break out, but he never did. After Mark Martin left the team, Roush replaced him with up and coming driver David Ragan. Ragan was selected because of his performance in The Gong Show, a televised competition between the development drivers in the Roush stable. Although Ragan won the competition, he had little success in the Sprint Cup–in 5 seasons with Roush he finished outside the top 20 in points 4 times and posted just 1 win. Ragan and McMurray’s failures sent Roush into a bit of a skid–after 2011, Roush fired Ragan and shut down the #6 car, shrinking his team to just 3 drivers.

The 2011 season, where Carl Edwards finished 2nd to Tony Stewart in points, was Roush’s best season in the last 5 years. Since them, the team has continued to stall. Longtime flagship driver Matt Kenseth left Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, the same year that Nascar introduced the new Generation 6 cars. While Kenseth thrived with a the new cars and a new team, Roush struggled. Although the team’s new driver Ricky Stenhouse won Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, he regressed dramatically in 2014, even failing to qualify at Talladega. Carl Edwards, the team’s best racer, followed Kenseth to Gibbs for the 2015 season. Greg Biffle, the face of the current team, continues to age and become less competitive.

Unless Roush can turn it around, the team could end up following a similar path to Robert Yates Racing. One of Nascar’s strongest teams for 20 years, Yates fell off a cliff in the mid-2000’s as driver Dale Jarrett grew older and the team failed to find any young talent to stay competitive. Yates eventually shut its doors in 2009. Hopefully for Roush, the team can turn it around and return to Nascar’s highest levels.