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Pedley: Roush’s Faith In Youth Now Paying Off

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 3 2011

David Ragan and Jack Roush have hung together the last five seasons and are now reaping the benefits. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Jack Roush is a results guy. He’s not in NASCAR for the money or the glamour. He’s certainly not in it to make friends.

His business decisions are built around improving results on the track and when a Roush Fenway Racing decision is not resulting in improvement – or even if a decision is holding neutral – Roush will act.

Even if it means, er, “altering” an employee’s career.

For that reason, young drivers David Ragan and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. must have had to try getting to sleep with their eyes open many a night over the last couple of years.

They were in top-tier Roush Fords, they were surround in the shops and pits by big-time pros and they were getting good salaries. Yet they were not producing on Saturdays and Sundays.

As they laid awake in their beds, pondering their futures, Ragan and Stenhouse must have been thinking of drivers like Todd Kluever, Colin Braun and even Jamie McMurray.

That is, high-expectation Roush drivers who became former Roush drivers.

The career of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has come around nicely this season. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Erik J. Perel)

Many in the grandstands and media centers also have spent considerable time in recent years debating how long Ragan and Stenhouse would be be employed by Roush and who would replace them once they were not.

Ragan, afterall, had gone winless and Chaseless since being given full-time possession of the venerable No. 6 Roush Fenway Sprint Cup car in 2007. And Stenhouse, up until recently, was known for wrecking RFR Nationwide cars than winning with them.

But Jack Roush also is a sharp-eye-for-talent guy. A dope-out-the-circumstances guy.

And when it came to Ragan and Stenhouse, he obviously saw things he liked. Things that he figured would help Roush Fenway – be they the possibilities for future success on the race track or in the pursuit and retention of sponsorship.

So Roush held onto his two youngsters and is now looking pretty damn sage for doing so.

Stenhouse is challenging for the Nationwide Series championship this year – he’s just 31 points behind leader Reed Sorenson. Despite having to drive against some of the best Cup drivers, Stenhouse is one of just three NNS regulars to have won a race this season. He has 12 top-10 finishes and that shows consistency.

He was rewarded for his success by Roush in May when Stenhouse was given his first

Young Roush guns Trevor Bayne and David Ragan. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

Cup start in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Stenhouse repaid Roush by qualifying ninth and finishing 11th.

Ragan, too, is having a Roush-worthy year. He has been consistently running with the people he is supposed to run with – top-tier drivers. He arrived at Daytona for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 just 20th in points but more because of bad luck than because of bad driving.

Only a brain freeze moment – he illegally changed lanes on a late restart – kept him from a great finish, and prehaps a victory, in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Then, on Saturday night, again on the big stage of the historic Fourth of July Weekend race at Daytona, Ragan got his first Cup victory.

It was victory that could put him in the Chase this year by way of the new Wild Card rule.

It was certainly a victory that made both driver and team owner look pretty darn good.

“We’re really excited about the way Ricky Stenhouse has run and, of course Trevor (Bayne, a Roush NNS driver) has run this year and David finally now winning a race,” Roush said late Saturday evening. “But David has been in a position to win a number of these races this year and it hasn’t been for lack of performance or lack of sound judgment on the way the car has been prepared, so it’s just a matter of time for that.

David Ragan's team pushed him all the way to Victory Lane at Daytona Saturday night. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

“But as far as the group of new drivers that are coming along, I think Ford is in very good shape with having a good cadre of young talent coming and if we can find sponsorship for them and keep the programs going, we’ll be able to really have a harvest in years to come.”

It was not only Roush’s faith in Ragan which was rewarded in Daytona. It was also his faith in young crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.

Blickensderfer took a different road to redemption. Two years ago, he was a pit-row sensation after winning his first two Cup races atop the box of Matt Kenseth. After opening the 2009 season with wins at Daytona and Phoenix, people joked that Blickensderfer may be the first crew chief ever to win all his races.

But then, the magic faded. When Kenseth went winless the rest of the season and then the first part of the 2010 season, Blickensderfer was reassigned to the Nationwide Series.

He was re-elevated to Cup late last year and this was tabbed to work with Ragan full time.

And there he was, back in Victory Lane at Daytona after a Cup race.

“You want to be a winner and I was real fortunate right off the get-go to win a couple races,” Blickensderfer said Saturday, “and then I probably had 34 or 35 races in a row where I felt like I failed quite a bit. I counted every one of them, and to come back and

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and driver David Ragan found redemption in the Coke Zero. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

get a second opportunity – it’s something Jack told me from day one that I’d be up here when the time was right again, it’s been really nice coming over here with 10 races to go in the season last year. I felt like we gained some momentum and then working this year with David and the guys I think our mindset has gotten better throughout the year.”

Ragan and Blickensderfer’s trials may not be over, however. This is, afterall, America still in the clutches of the economic chaos which began in 2008.

UPS, the parcel delivery service which has been sponsoring the No. 6 Roush car the last couple years, is pondering its future with RFR.

The hope of everybody under the roofs at the Roush Fenway Racing campus in Concord, N.C. this week is that Saturday’s showcase victory will help UPS make up its mind.

“Certainly we were hopeful that UPS will carry on in a meaningful regard with the sponsorship of the 6 car, but right now we are in negotiation,” Roush said. “We don’t have an assurance that’s going to be the case, but David has arrived at the upper echelon. He’s a winner now and he’s given a win to UPS and hopefully they’ll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all of their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.

“It certainly means a lot to us, but to finally have David in the win column is a really big

Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., crew chief Mike Kelley and owner Jack Roush. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

thing for us. He’s had several poles this year and he’s been close a number of times. We’ve been snakebit with these last five laps where the caution comes out and you take two tires, no tires, gas only, stay on the race track and all of our programs have not done as well as the others at making that judgment, so we’ve let several of them get away. Happily, we’ve got this one landed and it’ll be something that UPS can think about as they make their determination on what they’ll do next year.”

Ragan, the next couple of days, will still be suffering from sleeplessness. But his insomnia won’t be caused by thinking about McMurray and Kluever and Braun or even UPS.

“I probably won’t go to sleep tonight,” Ragan said. “I’m going to go back and watch some of the race and try to just stare at that trophy for a little while. I don’t get up and jump up and down and act crazy and foolish and I’m kind of already thinking about Kentucky a little bit. That’s an important race for us and now that we’ve got this win it lets a lot of pressure off in some sense that we finally got our first win at a points race here at Daytona, we’ve got a chance to make the Chase, but now there’s even more pressure to go out and stay in that top 20 in points, to perform well at these upcoming races, so I’ll enjoy it.”

Thanks to Roush’s decision to hang with him at a time when a lot of other people were already fitting somebody else for the seat of the No. 6 Sprint Cup Series car.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 3 2011
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