In 2001 nothing seemed to go right for car owner Jack Roush or his four Winston Cup teams. How else would you describe the four Roush Racing drivers accounting for a mere two victories and 18 Top-5 finishes out of a combined 143 starts?
What a difference a year makes. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NASCAR Winston Cup history, Roush Racing roared back to the top in 2002, going from downright rotten to downright enviable. Success came in the form of more victories and strong finishes, and with veteran team leader Mark Martin in the hunt for a championship.
The about-face was even more remarkable considering that Roush nearly died in a plane crash early into the season, putting his organization to the test.
Don't expect anyone within Roush Racing to point to one magic pill that cured all of the team's ills. As is often the case in racing it was the small gains, mixed with a little good luck, that made the difference.
"Everybody wants to know what the difference has been and the answer is we have had more horsepower, better handling cars, faster pit stops, and better luck," says Martin, driver of the No. 6 Viagra Ford. "Everybody at Roush Racing works as hard as they can all the time, but sometimes you get better results for the effort. It's the same thing as playing golf, cards, or anything else. Sometimes you just get better results than you do at other times. It's all rather simple."
No Fun In 2001
All amazing comebacks must start in the cellar, and that's exactly where Roush Racing found itself for much of 2001. Jeff Burton accounted for the team's two victories, and Martin suffered through his next-to-worst season since joining Roush in 1988. Martin didn't win, and he failed to finish in the Top 10 in points for the first time since 1988.
"Last year was an aberration when a bunch of things descended on us that we didn't anticipate and we weren't ready for, and we ended up not managing very well," Roush says. "I'm not mature enough or experienced enough to go through what we went through last year without it almost giving me a heart attack or an ulcer."
Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford, says you can't single out any area that led to the lack of performance in 2001. "It was just a lot of little things because we have so many departments and people doing so many different things," Kenseth says. "If you get behind just a little bit in any one of those departments, the racing is so competitive now that instead of running up front you're racing for 20th."
Kenseth says the team improved in 2002 by reacting faster to changing technology, by figuring out the best bodies to use on the race cars, making the right set-up changes, and improving the engines.
"A year has seemed to make all the difference in the world, that's for sure," says Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford. "I can honestly say it's been a total team effort. We have had four cars that worked as one and that's been an important part of our turnaround. As drivers, we have had better horsepower and an improvement in downforce. Jack Roush put a lot of effort into the motor department. So all those things have turned our program around."
Time Of Change
Clearly at the end of the 2001 season, it was evident to Roush as well as his drivers that things needed to change for the better.
"Over the winter, we sat down and reassessed things so we could come back strong," Roush says. "We took a look at things that did and didn't work, as well as how the team chemistry was. The thing that became obvious was we had a lot of great people here, but some of the teams weren't functioning with their drivers as well as they could."
Though Roush shuffled a few positions around in hopes of better results, he was shocked when Martin announced he wanted to switch not only longtime crew chief Jimmy Fennig to Busch's team, but also all the team members.
"That was a desperate move," Martin says. "I wasn't 100-percent sure I'd ever be a contender again, much less that I'd win the Coca-Cola 600 and be a contender for the Winston Cup championship this year. But I was sure it was a move that needed to be made for both teams. It has really worked out for everybody because we needed to do something to refresh us all."
Roush granted Martin's request and realigned the two drivers with new crews. After five seasons of working with Martin, Fennig was moved to the No. 97 team while Busch's former crew chief, Ben Leslie, and company were shifted to the No. 6 operation.
"There wasn't that much hesitation on my part," Roush says. "The thing that wasn't clear to me was how Ben and Mark would work together. Mark had a lot more of a desire to work with Ben than I ever imagined. For Mark to come up and tell me he wanted the challenge Ben would give him versus the predictability he had built with Jimmy did surprise me, but I was ready for a change to make things better. I wanted Kurt to be able to work with a veteran like Jimmy, and the fact Mark was willing to give him up and make a change was a shock.
"Mark and Jimmy had gotten so familiar with each other that if one of them started a sentence the other would finish it. That meant that if one of them got stuck on an issue the other one was stuck too because they were thinking so much alike mentally. We thought giving Mark a new crew chief in Ben Leslie would challenge and surprise him with some of the things he would bring to the table." Busch says that Fennig's knowledge has been an incredible asset to him being able to learn the ropes at the Winston Cup level.
"The reason for my turnaround has been Jimmy Fennig," Busch says without hesitation. "Obviously, being more comfortable in the car is key to winning races. Jimmy has given me that confidence. I was caught by surprise about the decision to change teams at first, but I wasn't looking far enough down the road. From the time we switched, I could tell Mark's old team was fired up because of the change. It has just been unreal the difference Jimmy has been to me because he's been around the sport for so long."
Returning To Form
While Roush endured one of his most disappointing seasons as a Winston Cup team owner in 2001, the performance of his entire operation had clearly changed directions through the first half of this year with three of his four drivers visiting Victory Lane. Only Jeff Burton went winless in his No. 99 Citgo Ford.
Martin picked up what he says is the biggest win of his career in May with a thrilling victory in the Coca-Cola 600 over teammate Kenseth. Busch had won his first race, with Kenseth picking up early victories at Rockingham, Texas, and Michigan, as well as winning in the fall at Richmond. "It was fantastic to this organization as a whole for everybody to get off to the start like we did," Martin says.
Despite the fact that it took the four Roush teams an entire 36-race season to post a combined 18 Top-5 finishes in 2001, the foursome earned 19 Top 5s in only the first nine races of 2002.
Burton's struggles, however, the one blemish on the 2002 season, sparked another crew chief change at Roush Racing. Roush decided to bring Paul Andrews aboard to take over the duties of longtime crew chief Frankie Stoddard. Andrews had been crew chief for the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet of Steve Park.
Things were going well for Roush Racing at the start of the 2002 season until a freak airplane crash left Roush in critical condition on his 60th birthday. Roush--an avid and experienced pilot--was given a birthday gift of flying a twin-engine experimental plane used mainly for flying close to the ground for photography purposes.
Roush's plane clipped power lines 75 feet above the ground, flipped, and landed upside down in a pond near Troy, Alabama. Miraculously, a retired Marine trained in underwater rescue was fishing in the pond where Roush's airplane landed. He jumped in and took Roush to the surface, revived him, and paramedics were able to take over.
Through Roush's recovery, Roush Racing pressed ahead in their leader's absence. "Beside the obvious concern of wanting to see Jack get better, it really didn't affect the day-to-day operations that much," Kenseth says. "It was definitely different right after it happened without him being there with us at Talladega. To his credit, Jack built a company with enough depth to where it could continue to operate in his absence. None of the day-to-day operations changed because we kept on working just like Jack was there with us."
The crash was hard on Martin, whose father, stepmother, and stepsister died in a plane crash in Nevada in 1998. "I have a lot of loyalty and love for Jack Roush," Martin says. "I have lost a huge amount of people that were close to me the last few years. My prayer for this year was not to bury another one of my friends, and so far my prayers have come true."
Roush says race teams are structured so they can move ahead without him. "I think the teams and drivers knew that if I was alive or dead, they understood I would have wanted them to do their best to carry on in my absence," Roush says. "I personally felt like I let them down by subjecting myself to that kind of risk, bringing that much of an uproar was terrible. I didn't want to hurt myself, and I certainly didn't want to cause the distraction my accident did for some period of time. I don't have an exit strategy, but it is the plan that Roush Racing will outlive me."
Roush was out of the hospital and back at the track only four races after his accident.
A Special Bond
The relationship between Roush and Martin has grown well beyond racing. They're more like family members. "I think in some ways Mark considers Jack as a father figure," says Martin's wife, Arlene. "Mark has a lot of respect for Jack because they have been through so much with each other. When Jack was in the plane crash, that was very hard on Mark because he'd lost his father the same way. I think the crash helped Mark realize how close he really is to Jack, and it's probably a lot closer than he had ever thought."
Roush was a pivotal player in helping Martin reach success and stardom at the NASCAR Winston Cup level. "Jack and I are partners in a lot of things," Martin says. "We've been partners in life and business, and also partners in our dreams. We've been through a lot together. Some of it has been ugly and a lot of it has been good, but we've gone through it together. We are pretty loyal to one another. I know Jack is watching my back, and Jack knows I'm watching his. I know Jack would never let anything happen to me if he had any control of it. We have a common passion of underdog fight in us both."
Roush says he has learned to truly appreciate having a friend like Martin. "I look at Mark more like a younger brother, and Mark has told me he thinks of me as a second dad," Roush says. "The relationship we have is very close. It's very satisfying and gratifying. It can also be pretty intense. When I tried to kill myself earlier this year and was in the hospital, I couldn't see Mark's demeanor and how bad his trauma was. But everybody who was around him told me he was so upset that he couldn't function."
Be The Best
Martin and Roush have become more accustomed to good times than bad, winning 33 races together and finishing in the Top 5 of the Winston Cup standings nine times.
Late in the 2002 season, with Martin battling for his and Roush's first Winston Cup championship, both he and Roush said it would be more meaningful to win the first championship for the other than it would mean to them personally.
"I want a championship so badly because Jack wants to win it with me," Martin says. "We've been through a lot together, and maybe I didn't take advantage earlier when the opportunities were there. There were also times when we didn't have the equipment we needed to battle for the title. Jack wants a championship so badly." Roush echoes those sentiments. "Mark and I have been through enough together in racing as most husbands and wives go through when it comes to raising a family," Roush says. "We've been through a lot together. For us as a team to not get Mark the recognition of having won a Winston Cup championship would be a travesty."
Matt Kenseth (left) and Mark...
Matt Kenseth (left) and Mark Martin led the charge in 2002, helping Roush Racing quickly regain its competitive nature.
Not even tire problems could...
Not even tire problems could keep Kenseth out of Victory Lane at Richmond, while Mark Martin scored an emotional win at Charlotte, calling the victory the biggest of his career.
Roush Racing started the season...
Roush Racing started the season by shifting the crews of the No. 6 and No. 97 cars, and late in the year brought in Paul Andrews (left) as crew chief for Jeff Burton (center) in an attempt to get the No. 99 machine running up front consistently. Here, Kurt Busch joins in a garage area strategy session.
Roush was glad to be back...
Roush was glad to be back in the pits following a nearly fatal plane crash, but says he knows his team could have moved on without him.