Roush Fenway better, still needs boost

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When Matt Kenseth climbed from his car after the Auto Club 500 Sunday, he uttered one of those comments that make you shake your head and look at him like he's crazy.

"I'm feeling great as far as the two finishes that we've had," Kenseth said.

Then he paused and added, "It sounds dumb me saying that."

Yes, it does. Considering that Kenseth won the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup races last season, finishing eighth and seventh in the first two races this year pales in comparison.

But when you consider how far Kenseth and all of Roush Fenway Racing fell after his spectacular start last season, he has a point.

Kenseth's two victories to start the 2009 season were two-thirds of the organization's win total for the whole season. The only other race it won was at Talladega in October by since-departed Jamie McMurray.

Kenseth faded so badly he had just five more top-five finishes the rest of the season and missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

Teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards made the Chase, but both failed to win a single race a year after combining for 11 victories and finishing second and third, respectively, in points in 2008.

The Roush Fenway Racing of 2009 was not the same organization that won back-to-back championships in 2003-04 and finished second in points in '05, '06 and '08.

Team owner Jack Roush vowed to change that, and Biffle says the organization worked harder during the offseason than it has in years.

That's why last week's race at Auto Club Speedway was so critical. The Roush cars were strong at Daytona, with Biffle nearly winning the race and Kenseth and Edwards both finishing in the top 10.

But Daytona is a different style of racing than what NASCAR teams are faced with most of the season. It's not a team's performance at Daytona, but at tracks like Auto Club and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of this week's race, that win championships.

Biffle, Kenseth, Edwards and the rest of Roush Fenway Racing were anxious to get to California to see how they stack up, to see how much progress they have made during the winter and if they have returned to form and closed the gap on Hendrick Motorsports.

The early results?

"We've got some work to do," Kenseth said.

"We've got a ways to go," Biffle added.

Though Kenseth and Biffle both finished in the top 10 at California, while Edwards wound up 13th, it was not the performance Roush Fenway was hoping for.

If Sunday's race was a true indicator, the Roush teams have made some progress, but still lag behind Hendrick Motorsports and may have been passed by Richard Childress Racing.

Though Biffle ran in the top five for a while, the Roush teams did not lead at lap at California, a track they have won at seven times.

Instead, the race was dominated by Hendrick and RCR, with Jimmie Johnson winning and RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton finishing second and third, respectively. Hendrick's Mark Martin finished fourth.

Biffle, who is third in points after two races, believes he was much better than his 10th-place finish indicated, but he got a bad break getting caught on pit road when a late caution flag flew.

"It seems like we're always on the wrong side of it, but we had a good car," he said. "It was obvious I could run with the 48 [of four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson] and the other guys up front, but it's just unfortunate there at the end with that deal on pit road.

"I think we've got a ways to go, but we're getting closer."

Kenseth was not disappointed at all with his seventh-place finish, particularly after the way he ran much of last year and after his team made a crew chief change a few days before the race.

Veteran crew chief Todd Parrott, who had been working in Roush's R&D shop, took over for Drew Blickensderfer after the Daytona 500.

Kenseth believes that finishing seventh in their first race together was a good sign.

"To get out of Daytona with all the troubles we had and finish eighth, and then to come here in Todd's first weekend and finish seventh is pretty good," he said.

"I was very, very happy," said Parrott, who led Dale Jarrett to the 1999 Cup championship. "I would have liked to have gotten the car closer for Matt, but we just tweaked on it all day long. It wasn't too bad. We've got some work to do ... [but] we're heading in the right direction."

The next big test will come this weekend at Las Vegas, another track where Roush teams have shined, winning six of 12 races, including Edwards' win there in 2008.

Biffle says the Las Vegas race will be another indicator of how much progress Roush has made, or how much more work it has to do.

"We've worked really hard," he said. "I think this winter we've worked as hard as we ever have getting our cars better on all the things you work on - lighter, faster, all the issues.

"[California and Las Vegas] is really how we're prepared for the rest of the season - how our cars are gonna perform on all the mile-and-a-halfs and mile-and-a-third race tracks, which are a lot of race tracks for us in this series.

"So this is really a true test."

So far, they haven't gotten the results they are looking for.

As Kenseth and Biffle said, they've got some work to do.