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Drew Bonifant

Once a power, Roush Fenway in danger of decline following Edwards’s departure

  • Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

    Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

  • Greg Biffle (16) drives during a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

    Greg Biffle (16) drives during a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

  • Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

    Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

  • Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)
  • Greg Biffle (16) drives during a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
  • Driver Carl Edwards talks with owner Jack Roush during practice for the Brickyard 400 Sprint Cup series auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Watkins Glen N.Y.   (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

It used to be a team to respect, admire and perhaps even fear, with a lofty perch among the most powerful squads that NASCAR had to offer.

Now it’s difficult to look at Roush Fenway Racing without noticing a trail of decline behind the former stock car giant. The cars are down. There’s been an exodus of star power. Championship hopes, once a given, are now far-fetched and still fading.

Carl Edwards’s decision to leave the team at season’s end, announced in late July, is the latest in a series of body blows for Jack Roush’s operation. The team also lost another linchpin in Matt Kenseth to Joe Gibbs after the 2012 season, and cuts in 2010 and ’12 brought the five-car fleet down to only three.

The Sprint Cup has been characterized lately by teams on the rise, with Hendrick Motorsports taking the de facto title of NASCAR juggernaut and Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing forming worthy adversaries.

But while those teams have improved, it’s become harder and harder to shake the impression that Roush Fenway is falling behind.

“This season felt like it’s been three years, the first six months, how hard we’ve worked trying to close the gap,” current RFR driver Greg Biffle said.

It didn’t used to be that way. Not in the late 1990s, when Mark Martin and Jeff Burton helped the 1988 startup blossom on the Winston Cup scene, and not in the early-to-mid-2000s when star-studded lineups featuring Martin, Kenseth, Edwards, Biffle and Kurt Busch made Roush a championship favorite year-in and year-out.

Roush got back-to-back titles from Kenseth in 2003 and Busch in 2004, but even when he didn’t win, he came close. He had at least one driver finish the season in the top three from 1997-2000, and then again from 2002-06. In 2005, Roush had five full-time drivers, and they all turned in top-10 finishes.

Then the standouts started leaving. Martin, a four-time runner-up and 34-race winner in the No. 6 car, left after 2006, a year after Busch split for Penske. Then, as the team got smaller, Kenseth left for Gibbs, and Edwards, though he re-upped with Roush the first time free agency came calling, could be following him there.

With Edwards departing, a roster once stocked with contenders is full of question marks. Biffle is sticking with the team, but is in danger of missing the Chase this year, hasn’t threatened for a title since a third-place finish in 2008 and, at 45 next year, will be among the oldest anchor drivers. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 27th in the standings. Trevor Bayne, getting called up from Nationwide to fill Edwards’s spot, has never raced a full Cup slate.

It’s a lineup that pales in comparison to ones Roush used to trot out, and coupled with the trend of the team’s best drivers leaving, it’s enough to wonder if the team is slipping into a second tier, further and further away from the organizations that lure those proven names by flaunting resources, equipment, sponsorship and a growing number of cars.

There is hope for Roush’s team, however, and it comes in the form of those younger drivers on the roster. Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide Series champion, has plenty of talent and his early struggles could be the growing pains that assist him in transitioning into another Martin, Kenseth or Edwards. Bayne won the Daytona 500 at 20 years old in 2011, and with 54 races under his belt already, he’ll have an idea of what to expect at the highest level.

According to Martin, who’s now a development coach with the team, if they have the potential, they’re driving for an owner who can find it.

“Nobody does a better job at developing young talent than Jack Roush,” he said.

Roush himself should hope his former anchor is right. Prestige is fleeting, and the last few years have been rough. If things don’t get better soon, the hole could be too big to climb out of.

Their best shot?

The next stop for the Sprint Cup is the ultimate wild card – and for some drivers, it’ll also be their best chance at salvaging a Chase spot.

The Cup is heading to the final road course on the schedule at Watkins Glen, a venue that can wipe the competitive slate clean. Drivers who have proven dominant on speedways and short tracks often struggle on the twists and turns of the road courses, and conversely, drivers who are also-rans on the ovals turn into bona fide contenders on the courses.

Look no further than Marcos Ambrose, who has never won a stock car race at a short track, speedway or superspeedway. Put him at Watkins Glen, however, and he’s an instant favorite. He’s got two Cup and three Nationwide victories at the course, as well as seven of his 17 career top-five Cup finishes. With five races remaining until the Chase and a win imperative in order to make it, Ambrose is going to his money track at the perfect time.

Even a few successful speedway drivers are looking to capitalize at the New York road course. Three-time champion Tony Stewart is winless and 19th in the points, and needs a checkered flag soon to keep his postseason hopes alive. He has ample reason to believe this will be his weekend, however. Smoke is a master at Watkins Glen, with five wins in only 14 races, and he has the highest average running position (5.7) and driver rating (120.4) of anyone who will line up today. It’s been a rough year for Stewart, but confidence is never in short supply when he visits New York.

Martin Truex Jr., running with small-market Furniture Row Motorsports, is another win-hungry driver who’ll be thinking big. He’s tied for 25th in the points, but he’s at his second-best track in terms of average finish, and he owns the sixth-best running position (12.0) of all drivers at the Glen.

Three up

∎ Kurt Busch bounced back from disappointing showings at Loudon and Indianapolis with a stronger day at Pocono. He finished only 13th, but he qualified fourth, led 30 laps and showed the kind of speed he’ll need when the Chase comes around.

∎ It’s been a trying year for Greg Biffle, but last weekend’s race at Pocono should give the Roush driver hope that things are turning around. His fifth-place finish was only his second top-10 in his last 10 races, and his highest finish since a second-place result May 4 that finished a stretch of three top-10s in four races. If he can hang around these remaining five races, he maximizes his odds at breaking through, getting a win and putting himself in the Chase.

∎ If he can’t win a race, Kasey Kahne can at least keep himself in Chase contention in points with strong finishes. Take away a 27th-place result at Daytona and Kahne has five top-10s in his last six races, with the exception being an 11th-place finish at Loudon. That’s pretty good.

Three down

∎ A bad engine doomed Kyle Busch at Pocono, and his 42nd-place finish was his third this year of 40th or worse.

∎ It doesn’t happen often, but Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team are lost right now. The six-time champ was 42nd in back-to-back races in Daytona and Loudon, and after a 14th-place showing in Indy, the misery returned with a 39th-place result in Pocono. It’s no time to panic, however. After all, Johnson looked this bad going into the Chase last year – and still came away with the title.

∎ Matt Kenseth likely doesn’t need to win to make the Chase, but more finishes like the 38th-place result in Pocono will test his points cushion pretty quickly.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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