Even before Kyle Busch‘s pole-winning time was disallowed for failing post-qualifying inspection Friday night, Roush Fenway Racing had a reason to look forward to Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
For the first time since the second Michigan race of 2014, all three RFR entries will start a Sprint Cup race in the top 15.
It’s not a visit to victory lane, which RFR hasn’t experienced in the Sprint Cup Series since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway in 2014. But it does represent a minor accomplishment for the team that struggled in 2015 and failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time.
Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Ford, called his fourth top-five start in 96 races and his first at a non-restrictor plate track a “pleasant surprise.” In 2015, his first full-time season in the Cup Series, Bayne’s average start was 27.9.
“We saw that we had speed last year at Kentucky and Darlington with this low-downforce package,” Bayne said. “I would say (third) is a surprise for sure. I was hoping for a top-15 day. That’s what we’re working towards and that’s our goal every week – to run to top-15 until we can run top-10 every week and be consistent and don’t make mistakes.”
Two spots behind him is Stenhouse. In his third season driving the No. 17, Stenhouse earned his sixth top-five start in 114 races. Atlanta is the site of Stenhouse’s only Sprint Cup pole, coming in 2013.
“Stenhouse is (starting fifth), so it’s not just a one fluke deal,” Bayne said. “I think we’ve got some speed in our cars, so it comes from a lot of effort and getting through the hard times. We’ll have hard times to come. Everybody does, but I think we can fight through it as a group.”
Stenhouse’s average start in 2015 was 23.6. The team’s best average starter last season was Biffle at 19.9, but the driver who has been with Roush since 1998 will begin Sunday in 14th.
Improvements made by his team helped Biffle gain 14 spots in qualifying from what he ran earlier in Friday’s lone practice session, when he was 28th fastest (187.386 mph).
But leading the way for RFR on Sunday will be Bayne, whose previous best start at the 1.54-mile track was 29th. The 25-year-old driver will be looking for his first top-five finish since winning the 2011 Daytona 500 in only his second-career Sprint Cup start.
Roush will seek to put all three cars in the top 15 at the end of a race for the first time since the Bristol night race in 2014. That was the weekend after all three started in the top 15 for the last time at Michigan.
“People aren’t on the ground going through it with you from the media side of things or fans,” Bayne said. “They just see your results and they want to beat you down and say, ‘What’s going on?’ They think you just kick back on the couch and hang out and go to the race track and run 29th, and that’s not what we do.”
The last time RFR was victorious in a Sprint Cup race at Atlanta was in 2008 with Edwards, who left the team at the end of 2014 for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“One of the things that’s been preached to us from Kevin Kidd, Robbie Reiser and Jack Roush is execution. They say our cars are gonna get better, we’re gonna work through it, we’re gonna get our cars faster and when those times come, we have to be able to execute and I feel like we did that today.”
In Saturday morning’s final practice session, Stenhouse and Biffle were 13th and 14th fastest. Bayne was 25th fastest after just one lap.