2015 was the year that Roush Fenway Racing hit rock bottom. For the first time in team history, none of the organizations cars made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in its 13-year existence. For the first time in team history, they had no shot at the championship.
Team owner Jack Roush is an equivalent to a racing God. He has placed cars on the track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time for the last 28 years. In its tenure in the Cup Series, RFR has been with one manufacture, Ford. The two sides have stuck with each other through thick and thin, last year being the absolute thinnest.
It is possible that any other team may have folded, but Roush is a racer. It’s what he has done for the majority of his lifetime. The Concord, N.C.-based team has had to overcome tough seasons in the past, but it needs speed to be competitive in 2016.
RFR finished 2015 as a team with an average finish of 23.3, the worst in team history. The worst season for the team prior to 2015 was in 2001 when the team’s average finish was 19.2, though posting two victories. Over the span of the 36-race schedule, the organization led a team-low 43 laps, and went winless for the first time since the 1996 season.
As the team progresses into the new year, it has mixed up its interior design.
Trevor Bayne is entering his second full season as the driver of the No. 6 AdvoCare Ford. It seems like a distant memory, but the five-year anniversary of his first career win is approaching this February when he took the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.
The team has paired Bayne with veteran crew chief Matt Puccia. For the last four and a half seasons, Puccia worked with former XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series champion Greg Biffle. In the 162 races that the duo worked together they picked up three victories, 24 top fives and 54 top-10 finishes, including 21 in 2012.
2012 was arguably one of Biffle’s best seasons in terms of consistency as he posted a career-best 10.2 average finish. Since that season, he’s cooled down only picking up one win at Michigan in 2013.
For Bayne, he needs leadership. It seems like he’s been around longer than he really has, but 2016 will be only his second full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series. He finished 29th in the championship standings, and didn’t lead a single lap all season long, not even on the restrictor plate tracks, which he normally runs near the front.
“I think last season we were kind of shoved into the dark a little bit, we didn’t know what we were going into,” Bayne told Speedway Digest. “We were optimistic, but we didn’t know. This season we have a lot more notes. We’ve had people in places for longer. I know my crew chief Matt Puccia. I’ve done this for a season so I know what that grind is like. I feel like I can be more optimistic.”
Bayne has had to overcome remarkable odds to ever step foot back into a competitive car due to having Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the central nervous system.
After taking some time off, Bayne has trained extremely hard to make sure he can make it through a full event. He went to Victory Lane in the XFINITY Series at Iowa in 2013, the only time he has been victorious since the diagnosis in NASCAR, he does have one victory in the ARCA Racing Series at Pocono in 2015.
Since that time, the 24-year-old has grown up. Bayne got married to his longtime girlfriend, had a child and is now competing full-time in the Cup Series.
“This season versus last season, our team the way that its working together is a lot different,” Bayne said. “It’s not just saying ‘hey we’re working together’ it’s actually making physical changes in the race shop. It’s putting all of the cars together.
“It’s moving all of the crew chiefs to one office. It’s the drivers coming in and being a part of the meetings. That leads to change and that leads to forward progress in our organization.”
The organization as a whole is destined to do better this season.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is entering his fourth full-time season in the No. 17 car. The two-time XFINITY Series champion has underperformed in his first three seasons, but his relationship with Bayne could be crucial going forward.
The two younger drivers are potentially the future of RFR. Stenhouse is in a contract season and knows that he needs to up the ante in 2016 coming off a season in which he only produced three top 10s.
Biffle is entering the twilight of his career as he is the oldest full-time driver in the Cup Series. He is signed through the 2017 season, and this will more than likely that will be his last stint in the No. 16 car. With drivers such as Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Chris Buescher, who is laying in the weeds over at Front Row Motorsports, the pressure is on the younger drivers. The 45-year-old has established himself with RFR and is the leader on that team.
The key to the movement could be the Bayne, Puccia relationship. The driver is known for getting everything out of the racecar and sometimes pushing the envelope just a little too much. With a new crew chief coming in, it could be the perfect match for the kid. Cool, calm and collective will be their focus.
“I think that as I was talking about communication, he and I have that,” Bayne said. “Our personalities are a lot alike in racing. We’re racers, that’s what we are. That’s what we have in common. We talk about it and work on our cars. I’ve known him for a long time. I believe in him.”
The pressure to perform is at an all-time high for Bayne. His start in the No. 6 car is similar to David Ragan’s back in 2007. He picked up his first career top-five finish in the Daytona 500 and then fell of the face of the Earth. He picked up another top-five and tallied a total of three top 10s in his rookie campaign. At the time, Ragan posted four DNF’s compared to Bayne’s three, but finished on the lead lap more times than the 2015 season.
Those numbers are very similar to the current driver of the legendary No. 6 team.
Competing for a championship isn’t a realistic expectation this season for Bayne and the rest of Roush Fenway Racing, but making the Chase is. Once a team is in the Chase, anything can happen.