After a down 2015, Roush Fenway Racing drivers enjoying ‘new normal’

(Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

There’s a “new normal” at Roush Fenway Racing.

After a dismal 2015 there’s more structure, less finger-pointing and all three teams are competing toward the front.

To top it off, Trevor Bayne is getting some sleep.

“Last year I feel like I had to beat myself up a little bit,” Bayne recently told NBC Sports. “I’d be looking at data and having sleepless nights trying to figure how I could drive the car different, and now this year that we have faster cars, I feel like I can kinda do what I know how to do naturally.”

Bayne is 20th in the Sprint Cup standings after 14 races. At this point last year, his first full season with Roush, he was 30th. Heading to Michigan International Speedway, Bayne has one top five and two top-1o finishes.

The biggest sign of improved speed for Roush is in qualifying. Bayne has advanced to the second round of qualifying 10 times and the final round five times. Bayne has an average start of 16.8. His average last year was 27.9.

“Last season I feel like qualifying was one of the hardest parts of my weekend,” Bayne said. “We would be 30th, you know? Hardly making the second round at times, and this season we’ve made it to the final round almost every week, and I think (crew chief) Matt (Puccia) does a really good job.”

The improvements are even more significant for fourth-year driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse has started in the top 10 seven times. Last year, Stenhouse started in the top 10 just three times. For the Coca-Cola 600, all three of Roush’s car qualified in the top 10 for the first time since 2013 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“The new normal at Roush Fenway is everybody is working together,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “It’s not blaming this department or this department … I feel like everyone has been hands on, in the ditch with each other, you know digging and trying to claw our way out of this and I think it’s been showing.”

Greg Biffle‘s best finish through 14 races is 11th in the Coke 600, which he started a season-best sixth in.

“We’re definitely on an upswing, especially the 16 team,” Biffle told NBC Sports. “The problem is we don’t have any results to show for it. Meaning we’re not able to close right now. So, we’re getting to the three-quarter point in the race, things are happening, we’re getting involved in stuff. Or particularly Dover, the big wreck. Probably had one of the best cars we did all season.”

Biffle isn’t sitting by as the team tries to return to the level of competition it enjoyed when he started racing full-time for Roush in 2003.

That’s included Biffle coordinating pit stop practices among the teams and driving the pit stop car. It’s one way Biffle has committed to show he’s in “100 percent” to build Roush back up.

“I took charge and went down to pit stop practice and told the guys, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here every week for the next month, or one day a week, and I’m going to drive the pit stop car and we’re going to practice other things,’ ” Biffle said. “I recognized that they were kind of stuck in the same old routine and it needed to be changed up. And it brought so much energy and life back into my team that at Dover we had the best pit stops we’ve had in six months. And so then I went to Trevor and Ricky and asked them to do the same thing with their team.”

The more cohesive operation at Roush has the team the closest it’s been to consistently competing since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway in 2014. It’s seen Bayne, who hasn’t won since his 2011 Daytona 500 upset, lead a career-high 22 laps at Talladega Superspeedway to make his season total 34, also a career best.

After struggling in the back of the pack in 2015, Roush is showing signs it can turn its “new normal” into the kind of success Mark Martin helped create for the team during the height of his Hall of Fame career in the 1990s.

“It takes time to catch up and it’s hard to catch up,” Bayne said. “The guys that you’re trying to beat are also getting better. So you have to make huge gains to do what we’re doing this season.”