Horsepower is a beautiful thing.
Not the horsepower we’ve seen in the Budweiser commercials where the Clydesdales show off their football skills. It’s the horsepower that roars from under the hood of a 3,400 pound stock car that’s beautiful.
Every team is NASCAR is constantly looking for just a little more horsepower, just a little bit more speed to help them beat the competition. Heading into the 2010 season, it was evident that certain teams weren’t on the same level as others when it came to speed.
Lacking in the power department, they got to work, most notably Roush-Fenway Racing whose three drivers went winless, even Carl Edwards who had an incredible 2008 campaign. As a company, RFR only won three races last season, two coming from Matt Kenseth in the first two races of the year, and one from the driver that is no longer with them.
Roush was just one of the many companies that spent the offseason trying to go faster. But about three months of hard work won’t begin to show until the cars hit the track in Daytona for the biggest race of the year, and before that happens there’s time to tell the world during the media tour why you’ll be better this year than you were last year.
Team owner Jack Roush did just that last month.
“I couldn’t be more excited about 2010,” he said. Among the changes his organization put in place were building their engineering staff from 30 to 36, as well as having Ford increase their commitment.
While RFR was working hard to make their Ford’s better, another organization was working hard to get better by switching to Ford’s.
Every driver that is now a part of Richard Petty Motorsports started their career with a manufacturer they are no longer with. Elliott Sadler debuted in 1999 with Woods Brothers Racing and won his first race in 2001, in a Ford. Kasey Kahne became the face of Dodge and Evernham Motorsports in 2004 and won his first race a year later.
The newly formed Red Bull Racing team picked up AJ Allmendinger in 2007 under the Toyota banner, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. hired Paul Menard in 2005 with Chevrolet.
After many team switches and mergers, they are now all teammates with NASCAR champion and legend Richard Petty as the boss. In 2009, the company ran Dodge’s and only saw Kahne in both victory lane, twice, and in the Chase–he finished 10th in points.
But the rest of the Petty organization–at the time being Allmendinger, Sadler, and Reed Sorenson–were far from performing like they should have been. Allmendinger finished 24th in points, Sadler 26th, and Sorenson 29th, and he was released after the season was over.
None of those drivers won a race and only had 12 top tens between the three of them.
The reason they weren’t performing couldn’t possibly have been because the drivers weren’t capable of doing it, could it? Sadler hasn’t won since 2004 and teammates Allmendinger and Menard are still winless in their careers.
So, they chucked it up to Dodge being the problem and broke loose for Ford and the Yates engine program that has always been strong.
With 2009 behind these two organizations and the work during the offseason done, it was time to hit the track.
And boy what a difference a year makes.
Right off the truck, the Fords were fast, in both Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500 practices. Kasey Kahne paced the second Shootout practice, while Matt Kenseth paced the second Daytona 500 practice.
When the green flag flew in the Budweiser Shootout that Saturday night, Edwards’ Ford Fusion started on the pole and led the entire first 25-lap segment. Chevy driver Kevin Harvick won the race but Kasey Kahne wasn’t far behind in second.
Now all the attention focused back on the big race and the Ford focused on making their presence known, something that became obvious in the third practice session with the drivers that sat fifth through 10th on the speed charts being Kahne, Kenseth, Menard, Greg Biffle, Sadler, and Edwards.
Thursday they got another chance to show what they could do in another competitive event, the Gatorade Duels.
In the first race, Allmendinger was running second before he missed his pit stall and he would finish seventh with David Ragan of Roush-Fenway finishing ninth, Biffle 11th, and Edwards took home the 13th spot.
The second race was even better for the teams. Kasey Kahne brought home his first restrictor plate win, Sadler in fifth, Kenseth in 11th, and Menard in 15th position.
In victory lane, Kahne said that he still has the same group of guys he's always worked with, as well as the same cars underneath him, but, "the engine definitely drafts different. It pulls up a little bit harder, you can stay there, you can make a mistake–I made plenty today–and you don't drop nearly as far. And you can get your speed back up and build it back up quicker."
Then he added, "I really like what I have right now."
So far so good in the offseason work department.
But the problem is that heading into Sunday–with Ford now looking at many of their drivers as contenders to hopefully repeat Kenseth’s win last year–is that Ford horsepower, specifically Yates horsepower, has always been near the front when it comes to restrictor plate tracks.
Remember David Gilliland sitting on the Daytona 500 pole in 2007 as a rookie? Or how he was tied in speed with Jeff Gordon at Talladega for the pole later that year?
The question is, will all the success Roush-Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports has enjoyed the last week and a half continue the rest of the year?
The Roushketeers have always been contenders. Even if they didn’t win as many races as they would have liked to in 2009, they did have two of the four drivers in the Chase, and they were serious threats for race wins each weekend.
But for the RPM drivers, besides the moments of brilliance last year for Kahne, it’s tough to determine whether the drivers have improved or if what’s under the hood is making up the difference. Suddenly taking them from pretenders to contenders again.
If 2010 turns out as well as Speedweeks have already, many might not care, because like I said, horsepower is a beautiful thing.