Kenseth, Edwards should challenge again

2012 Team Preview: Roush Fenway Racing

Owners: Jack Roush and John Henry (125 career wins, two career championships)

Drivers: Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle (finished second, fourth and 16th, respectively, in 2011)

Crew chiefs: Bob Osborne (Edwards), Jimmy Fennig (Kenseth), Matt Puccia (Biffle)

Key offseason changes: For the first time since 1997, Roush Fenway Racing is running fewer than four full-time Sprint Cup teams as the flagship No. 6 Ford will only run in limited races this season. Because of a lack of sponsorship, the RFR workforce has been downsized by more than 100 employees.

Overview: From a competition standpoint, Roush Fenway Racing has nothing to complain about with two of its three cars finishing in the top four in the points standings. However, the stark reality that one of NASCAR's top operations has shrunk from 10 fully sponsored teams in 2008 to barely three full-time Cup cars and a defending championship Nationwide Series program supported out of the owner's pocket is quite a change.

Edwards and Osborne comprise one of the elite partnerships in the sport. However, the No. 99 team fell short in executing multiple wins, which certainly factored into the team's runner-up finish in points to Tony Stewart last year. Stewart put Edwards away with five victories in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Roush Fenway Racing has prided itself in consistency with points racing throughout the years, but as NASCAR gears its system with an emphasis on winning, teams such as the No. 99 will need to reinvent themselves. This team is strong enough to take the necessary chances to win early in the season when there's ample time to recover in the points. The good news for 2012 is Edwards won't have to worry about contract negotiations distracting himself, his team or the rest of the organization.

Kenseth, the only former champion on the Roush Cup roster, was a contender in the Chase until he tangled with Brian Vickers at Martinsville Speedway. The No. 17 boasted its best season since 2006, when Kenseth scored four wins and finished second in the points standings. Kenseth led the Roush contingent in 2011 with three wins and continued to solidify his relationship with Fennig -- a throwback crew chief of the Robbie Reiser mold. Although it's difficult to believe that the driver once referred to as "Matt the Brat" turns 40 this season, he remains on top of his game. This season will be no different.

Biffle missed the Chase in 2011 for the fourth time in seven seasons. Early in the year, the No. 16 Ford was plagued with problems in the pits, particularly with the new closed-loop fuel system. By the halfway point of the season, the 41-year-old Roush veteran demanded a crew chief change and Greg Erwin was replaced by engineer and former Nationwide crew chief Puccia in July. Although Biffle has complete confidence in Puccia, his statistics did not improve dramatically except with qualifying. Biffle scored three poles in the final 14 races, proving his cars had plenty of speed. However, the end results could not vault the former Truck and Nationwide series champ into the top 15 in the points standings by the end of the season, and an engine failure in the finale exacerbated the problem.

Having the opportunity to get acquainted with Puccia last year should allow Biffle to hit the ground running for SpeedWeeks. Also, Biffle's pit crew issues have been addressed and he will have a new look this season as he gets the former No. 6 crew, with the exception of the gas man.

With Roush's aging driver roster, Nationwide racers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne are waiting in the wings for an opportunity to take that next step into the Sprint Cup Series. Stenhouse, who has been marked as the future of Roush, will run the No. 6 Ford in the Daytona 500, but a lack of sponsorship will limit his opportunity to gain seat time in Cup. If RFR hopes to hold on to this hotshot, the marketing/sales group better bring its A game to the table or Stenhouse or his former USAC team owner, Stewart, will be waiting.

Prediction: Roush Fenway Racing remains one of the top organizations in NASCAR. Expect Edwards and Kenseth to pick up where they left off in 2011. These drivers and their teams continue to be perennial contenders, and that should not change. Biffle has the security of the 3M sponsorship (the closest example of a full-time primary at RFR) for the next three years and can concentrate on joining his teammates for the postseason. The competition side of the company understands the necessity of returning to a four-car operation to compete against the other juggernauts in NASCAR. And RFR is expected to reinforce its sales staff for 2012. At this juncture, sponsorship results will be every bit as crucial to the success of this organization as are the results on the track.