NASCAR drivers getting back up to speed

For Greg Biffle, New Hampshire was the

worst.

It was July, and in practice for the 17th

race of the 2007 season and the eighth using

the new race car being introduced in

NASCAR's top series, Biffle was baffled.

"We were the slowest car there," Biffle said.

"We were 49th on the (speed) sheet. Obviously,

somebody's got to be the slowest car, but it was

frustrating for me. It's a racetrack I almost won

at and got in the top five nearly every time I'd

been there ... it was frustrating. To go there as a

driver and I was the worst car and slowest car

there, I've never felt like that in my life."

Weeks earlier, after similarly frustrating

results in races with the new car earlier in the

season, drivers and crew chiefs on Ford's flag-

ship Sprint Cup Series team went to car owner

Jack Roush and said something had to change.

"We got blindsided and didn't do as much

testing with the Car of Tomorrow," Roush

admitted late in the 2007 season. He said he

thought NASCAR would impose stricter limits

on the testing teams could do with the new cars,

but eventually realized that other teams - most

specifically Hendrick Motorsports - weren't

balking at that.

"We had four or five really bad races with

that early on just because we didn't have as

much information as some of the other teams

did," Roush said. "I misjudged that. That was

my fault."

The impact of that miscalculation is clear.

Even with improved performance in COT races

by the season's second half, punctuated by COT

wins at Bristol and Dover by Carl Edwards,

Roush Fenway Racing's top three teams aver-

aged 1,992 points in the 16 COT races run in

2007. Jeff Gordon had 2,482 and eventual

champion Jimmie Johnson had 2,406.

That new car will be used in all 36 races in

2008, so it is clearly imperative for Roush's

teams to keep erasing whatever gap existed as a

result of Roush's miscalculations.

"At the beginning of the season we were hor-

rible," said Biffle, who missed the Chase last

year while teammates Matt Kenseth and

Edwards made it. "I think we'll all admit it. We

weren't even close. At the end of the season we

weren't where we needed to be, but we were

certainly a heck of a lot better. I look forward to

starting off this season, hopefully, with where

we left off last year."

While Biffle looks to get his No. 16 Fords

back up to where he was in winning six times

and joining Edwards in finishing just 35 points

behind 2005 champion Tony Stewart, it's

Kenseth who has the most momentum from late

last year to try to carry over.

The driver of the No. 17 Fords won the

finale to cap off a late run that carried him from

last in the 12-driver Chase five races in up to

fourth in the final standings just five races

later. Kenseth finished in the top

five in each of the season's

final races and actually gained 17 points on

eventual champion Jimmie Johnson even though

Johnson won four of those five races.

Kenseth has made the Chase in each of the

four seasons it's been used to pick a champion

- since the 2003 season when Kenseth's con-

sistency carried him to the final title under the

former format.

There is something new for Kenseth this

year, though. After working with crew chief

Robbie Reiser throughout his NASCAR career,

Kenseth now has Chip Bolin in that job after

Reiser moved up to a manager's position with

the entire Roush Fenway operation in the Cup

Series.

"Chip has been there a long time and we

know each other well," Kenseth said. "We did-

n't really make too many other changes on the

road crew, so it's really not - so far anyway -

that different than what I'm used to.

"It's different. Chip has always been kind of

the technical side of the team or Robbie's brain

or my brain or however you want to say it. He's

always been the engineer holed up in the back

and looking through numbers and testing stuff.

... Robbie was more the organizer

and hands-on guy and all that

kind of stuff, where

Chip is still trying

to do the engineer-

ing and trying to

figure out how to

make the cars go

fast as well as try-

ing to take over a lot

of the duties Robbie did

day-to-day, so it's a little

different approach."

Edwards rebounded from

a lackluster second full season

to win three times and get back

into the Chase last year after

being reunited with his

crew chief from

2005, Bob

Osborne.

Edwards also won the Busch Series champi-

onships in 2007 and, despite a late-season flare-

up of intramural tensions between himself and

Kenseth, re-emerged as one of the sport's poten-

tial stars a year ago.

Jamie McMurray got his second career win

and his first since joining the Roush camp at

Daytona in July, but there weren't enough high-

lights to go along with that. David Ragan had

top-10 finishes in the first and last races of his

rookie season, but only one other top-10 all

year.

Robert Yates sold his interests in his team to

his son, Doug, and the team moved its opera-

tions onto the same "campus" with the Roush

teams. The younger Yates has been a key player

in the Roush-Yates engine cooperative all along,

and now his drivers will use Roush-built cars to

try to show improvement. David Gilliland

returns in the No. 38 Fords, with Travis Kvapil

moving into the team's other car replacing the

retired Ricky Rudd. Kvapil is using the No. 28

after Robert Yates let the No. 88 pass to Dale

Earnhardt Jr. in his new deal at Hendrick

Motorsports.

Another team with a long Ford history, the

Wood Bros., will start the season with Bill

Elliott in the No. 21 for Daytona Speedweeks.

Jon Wood and Marcos Ambrose will each

drive that car in portions of the Sprint

Cup schedule, too.

Driver Robby Gordon is back with

the No. 7 team he also owns, with

Frank Kerr as his crew chief for 2008.

"This is my third time with Frank,"

Gordon said. "I was looking for what

made our program competitive in the

past. We won Busch races with him

and ran really well."

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