Roush Has Multicar Meltdown

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HAMPTON, Ga. – It’s not high times these days for the Roush Racing contingency in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and just how bad things have become are beginning to leave people scratching their heads.

Wrecks, blown engines, on-track penalties – you name it, the four Roush teams have endured it during the first four races of the 2001 season.

The early-season problems have left all four drivers behind the eight ball in the Winston Cup points standings. Mark Martin is the top Roush driver at 25th place in the points, but a whopping 231 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

Rookie Kurt Busch is 27th (244 behind), Matt Kenseth is 29th (255 back), and Jeff Burton is 38th, an unbelievable 336 points behind the leader.

It’s obviously still early in the season, but if the downward spiral continues for even a bit longer, the four teams could find themselves buried before the first two months of the year are up.

Sunday’s Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the epitome of frustration for three of the Roush teams. Martin had a solid run going before his engine blew, relegating him to a 41st-place finish after starting fourth.

Kenseth was running fourth in the final 50 laps when his engine let go, and he wound up 37th after starting 42nd. Burton encountered all types of problems with his No. 99 Taurus Sunday, including two 15-second penalties for different infractions and an ill-handling car. He finished 30th.

Burton’s early-season troubles are perhaps the most baffling among observers around the Winston Cup circles. Picked by many to challenge for - if not win - the Winston Cup championship this season, Burton hasn’t finished higher than 19th (Daytona) and has finished 30th or worse in three of the four races run so far this season.

The past two races, at Las Vegas and Atlanta (both 1.5-mile venues), Burton has qualified poorly. He started 28th at Las Vegas and wrecked early, and he started from the 37th position at Atlanta.

“It seems like we never qualify very well, especially at places like this (Atlanta),” Burton said. “I don’t know what we’re going through right now, but it sure isn’t good. We can’t get too far behind or we’ll absolutely bury ourselves.”

Martin has hardly found his groove yet this year, despite a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Normally a solid competitor for a victory at Rockingham, he finished 20th there after beginning the season by getting in the “big wreck” and finishing 33rd at Daytona.

The blown engine Sunday, unusual for a Roush Racing car, was just another in a long list of woes for the No. 6 team.

“Our car wasn’t quite good enough, but we were doing the best we could with it (prior to the blown engine Sunday),” Martin said. “This is very disappointing.”

Kenseth - who finished 14th in the points during his rookie campaign last year - was hoping for a fast start to the season, but has encountered a few setbacks himself. He finished 21st at Daytona, 28th at Rockingham and 17th at Las Vegas prior to Sunday’s debacle.

“Everybody’s working really hard and the guys have been putting forth 100 percent and giving me pit stops and cars we need to run up front,” Kenseth said. “That’s (the engine) the only part letting us down right now and somehow we need to fix it.”

Busch, whose team still has not found a primary sponsor for his No. 97 Taurus, started off the season on a tough note with a 41st-place finish at Daytona and a 36th-place run at Rockingham, but has rebounded the past two weeks with an 11th-place run at Las Vegas and a 10th-place finish at Atlanta Sunday, the first Top 10 of his Winston Cup career.

“All in all, our effort wasn’t too bad,” Busch said of his finish at Atlanta. “We struggled real bad early on and we just had to come from 43rd to the Top 10. That was an exciting run for the team and everybody was pumped up about it. It was good to run competitively all the way through the race.”

Busch is currently third in the rookie chase. He’s 12 points behind Kevin Harvick, the winner of Sunday’s Cracker Barrel 500, and two points behind Ron Hornaday.

“Harvick is another rookie that’s tough and we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Busch said. “His car won the race here (at Atlanta) last year, but we put our Ford up on the top groove and we were just running around the best we could. We’ve got some things to learn still. That 29 car (Harvick) was ready and this 97 (Busch’s) is building.”

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