Roush Fenway drivers finally able to raise expectations

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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FORT WORTH – Qualifying was over for the Duck Commander 500. The scoring pylon at Texas Motor Speedway presented a site Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne probably aren’t used to, but will gladly take.

The No. 17 lit up the square five down from the top. It represented Stenhouse’s second top-five starting spot of the year and sixth in four years in the Sprint Cup Series.

“We’re close to second, not close to Carl (Edwards) there (on the pole), but I’m definitely happy,” Stenhouse said after posting a speed of 192.940 mph.

Bayne was farther down the column in 12th, but the second-year driver at Roush Fenway Racing was more than pleased with his speed of 190.570 mph.

“Last year, I would have been ecstatic to make it to the final round,” said Bayne.  “Even to make it to the second round half the time last year was a big deal for us, so we’ve made huge gains.  I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Bayne will start Sunday’s race from the top 15 for the third time this season. He started third at Atlanta and seventh at Auto Club Speedway.

His only two top-15 starts last year came at restrictor plate races. Greg Biffle will start 14th for his fourth top-15 start. Prior to the Atlanta race, all three RFR cars hadn’t started in the top 15 since 2014.

Through six races Stenhouse is 18th in the points standings, two spots shy of the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which a Roush Fenway Racing team failed to qualify for for the first time last season. Now Roush must turn these starting spots into strong finishes.

Stenhouse put his best foot forward in Fontana, earning just his fourth top five in four seasons. But Stenhouse admitted he “snuck” into the top five after running in the top 10 most of the day. He now has an average finish of 19.7.

“Last year, I wasn’t really focused on the top 15,” Stenhouse said. “I was focused on top 25 at the beginning of the year and that was a tough feat. Luckily, we built on that and top 15s were something we were capable of the last 10 races last year.”

Stenhouse finished in the top 10 twice in that stretch, placing eighth at Dover and ninth at Talladega.

“So coming into this year I was hoping to at least be top 15, but on the mile-and-a-halves I think we’re a top 10 car most days,” Stenhouse said.

Texas has been kind to the current stable of Roush drivers in the past. Bayne won his first Xfinity Series race here in 2011. He made his Sprint Cup debut here in 2010 and finished 17th, a feat he matched in three straight starts but hasn’t bettered since.

“In the Cup car I’ve struggled a little bit more than the Xfinity car,” Bayne said. “But I’ve just always battled being tight in the center with the momentum you carry in the Cup car. It just won’t cut the center like I need it to, but our cars have a lot of speed here today and if we can just get them to drive right and last, I think we’ve got a really good shot at a top 10 run this weekend, if not a top 15.”

Biffle has won twice on the 1.5-mile track, in 2002 and 2012.

Stenhouse, who won at Texas in the Xfinity Series in 2012, continues to search for his first Sprint Cup win. The falloff of the tires on the aging track matched with the low-downforce package could play into the hands of the dirt track veteran.

“It’s funny, I used to like in the Xfinity/Nationwide Series I loved the old race tracks,”said Stenhouse. “I loved Texas, loved Atlanta, and then I came over to the Cup side and we just couldn’t get our cars to handle like we needed to to have fun at those place like I did before.

“But this year, so far, we’ve made huge improvements on our mile-and-a-half, especially the older race tracks, the ones where the tires wear out. Last year, the year before, we never thought about making it to the third round on a mile-and-a-half, especially one that wears the tires out, so this is big.

“This is good wind in our sails and hopefully we can keep going.”