Having seen it all, Roush's joy restrained

ON MOTOR SPORTS

November 16, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

Last weekend, Matt Kenseth did what no one else with Roush Racing has been able to do in team owner Jack Roush's 16 years in Winston Cup competition - win the series championship.

Roush is joyful, but it's apparent he is still not ready to totally embrace the trophy.

"It ranks in the top five," he said this week. And then he went on to recall the first championship he won in 1973 in drag racing, his first win in the 24 Hours of Daytona, his first Winston Cup win with Mark Martin in Rockingham, N.C., in 1989, and his last win with Martin in the 2002 Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C.

"I don't know which of those I'd rank as the highest," said Roush, whose teams have won more than 30 titles in various forms of motor racing. "We had to have each of them happen in time to get here."

Roush didn't think this day would ever come. He thought his sometimes less-than-polite criticism of NASCAR and his inability to play politics would keep him from it no matter what his teams did.

"I've been plenty loud, to the point of distraction," he said. "As I get older, I get more patience. NASCAR certainly requires a very mature approach to make an argument. ... If you run at them with an indefensible argument, they'll punch holes in it and send you away in embarrassment.

"Over 16 years, I've been overwrought, misinformed and embarrassed, and there have been times when I thought I was right and just not accepted and walked away still thinking I was right."

Last Sunday, Roush was happy for the team he co-owns with Martin. And next month he'll have his "big planes flying back and forth taking everyone who wants to go" from his massive five-team organization in Concord, N.C., to New York for the championship celebration.

"This championship," he said, "is a watershed for keeping my teams and sponsors together for the next decade."

But not too far in the back of Roush's mind is the memory of the title that got away, and the hurt that feels just as bad.

"If I had not lived through my '02 accident and had been forced to look back and take stock," he said, "I would have thought I'd made a great success. The Winston Cup championship is a bonus, but I wouldn't have felt a failure without it."

Roush was referring to his brush with death in a small plane accident last year.

But though he is smiling more lately, he is still NASCAR's version of a pit bull. Once he has sunk his teeth into something, he doesn't let go easily.

In 1990, Roush's driver, Martin, won the spring race at Richmond International Speedway, but basically also lost the championship that day.

At the time, NASCAR had a rule that permitted only two inches between the carburetor and the manifold.

But at the Daytona 500 that February, NASCAR inspectors had allowed teams to weld the manifold so that it would be an inch higher and put the two-inch space between the carburetor and manifold. Altogether, it was a three-inch space allowance.

When the teams rolled into Richmond the next week, Martin's team members went to work setting up his car. In their minds, they had three inches to work with.

So, instead of creating the extra space by welding the manifold, they simply bolted on a 2 1/2 -inch spacer. The car passed pre-race inspection three times, but after the race the setup was ruled illegal.

Martin kept the victory, but he was penalized 46 points. At the end of the season, Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title by 26 points over Martin.

Ten years later, Roush was still growling over the incident.

"I feel as bad about what happened at Richmond today as I did the day it happened," Roush said then. "Because of that ... I almost don't care if I never win a NASCAR championship. We'll race to win as many races as possible, but my heart's broke. No one deserves a championship more than Mark Martin."

At least Kenseth is Martin's protege, and perhaps Roush can take some joy from that.

No time to enjoy

Robbie Reiser, the man who directed the preparation for Kenseth's winning Ford, wasn't jumping with joy, either, over clinching the championship.

"I just thought it would have been a bigger deal," he said. "We wrapped it up at Rockingham around 6 p.m. Sunday and at 5 a.m. Monday we were back in the shop working on next season's cars. It takes some of the fun out of the whole deal."

The season is so long, Reiser said, there really is no offseason. Just nine weeks after the championship banquet in New York, Dec. 5, teams have to be ready to unload their cars at Daytona International Speedway for the 2004 Daytona 500.

"No one can afford to take time off for anything," said the crew chief. "If you do, someone will pass you. You have to wipe the smile off your face and keep at it. It really is a disappointment."

Nuts and bolts

Though Kenseth has won the Winston Cup title, other spots in the top five will still be decided today in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are 38 points apart in their battle for second place. Ryan Newman is in fourth, but only 64 points separate him, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick and just 30 points separate Gordon and Harvick in fifth and sixth. ... Famed multitalented driver Sir Stirling Moss will serve as the grand marshal for the 42nd anniversary of the Rolex24 At Daytona on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. The British driver is one of the most versatile racers in history, having won in the Formula One, Two and Three series, as well as in hill climbs, sports and touring car races, rallies and world speed-record events.

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