Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Even with NASCAR’s regular schedule on hold, the Roush Fenway Racing team has found a way to provide the thrill of competition by pitting its long list of drivers against one another in a March Madness-style bracket of fun, intrigue and suspense called #RoushMadness.
The idea is to have fans decide on social media the “greatest driver” in Roush Fenway Racing history and includes a “Who’s Who” list of all 58 names who have started a NASCAR race for the team – from competitors who only raced a single time under the RFR banner like USAC star Kevin Swindell and IndyCar’s Conor Daly to former competitors such as Kenny Wallace, Greg Biffle and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin, and current drivers Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher.
Just looking at the list of drivers is a stark reminder of the storied history of Roush Fenway Racing. Narrowing down the roster to a single favorite may be almost as hard as it was competing against some of these great talents. And it’s all been a good outlet as the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 virus pandemic that has postponed sports competition for now.
Daly, a 28-year old open-wheel star, advanced farther in the contest than he says he imagined. He made only a single NASCAR Xfinity Series start for Roush – starting 15th and finishing 31st on the iconic Road America road course race in 2018. But Daly earned what the Roush Fenway team considers the “tournament upset” to date. Daly was a No. 15 seed and defeated the No. 2 seed, Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner – who raced in both the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series with Roush – by a margin of 10 votes.
Daly ultimately lost to the team’s No. 7 seed Newman in the next round. But he was humbled to be included in the contest and said he hopes fans had as much fun with it as he did.
“It’s pretty cool to be honest,” Daly said. “I thought it was a really creative idea but also, I never even expected to be a part of something like that. I thought it was super cool and an honor to be in a bracket with so many talented guys and legends of the sport as well.
“I was only a one-race guy, but would have loved to do more. I really enjoyed my time with Roush. It was fun.”
Buescher, the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion who currently drives the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, said he also had a lot of fun with the project and was happy to find a way to engage with fans. He advanced to the Round of 16, defeating Brian Ickler and Erik Darnell, but ultimately fell to Carl Edwards.
“How are they going to put me on same side of the bracket as Carl Edwards, that’s what I want to know,” Buescher joked.
“It’s been neat,” he continued. “I’m not a big sports fan outside of racing so I was joking that I’d only filled out two [March Madness basketball] brackets in my life, the first in Xfinity days when they had me fill out a bracket and I just picked the ones with the coolest names. I ended up getting knocked out the first three games.
“I took a similar approach to this bracket,” he conceded. “It was a mix of people. I took Billy Johnson pretty far into it, basing that on road racing. Naturally, I brought myself all the way to the end because I’m hopeful like that. I think I had Stanton Barrett beating out Carl Edwards just so I wouldn’t have to go against Carl Edwards. But here we are.”
Aside from the competition element of the game, Buescher said he was impressed with the long list of names who had driven for his boss.
Brian Ickler, for example, who made five Xfinity Series starts for Roush (earning a top-10 finish at Daytona) in 2010 competed. Barrett drove 15 races of the 2003 season for Roush, winning the pole position in back-to-back weeks at Las Vegas and Darlington, and earning four of his seven career top 10s while driving for the team.
“There’s a ton of names on there I hadn’t heard of in a long time and some I hadn’t heard of at all,” Buescher said. “I had not really realized how many people had driven there. But it’s really neat. It got people buzzing on social media a little bit and keeping their mind off things – a good distraction through all of this.”
Fans have certainly been participating. Roush Fenway Racing says that since it began the contest on social media, the posts have garnered more than two million impressions, more than 100,000 engagements in the contest and garnered more than 40,000 votes through the opening two rounds of #RoushMadness competition. Not only does it say a lot about the team, but it’s promising for the team’s sponsors – SunnyD, Fastenal, Acronis, Oscar Mayer, Castrol and Fifth Third – that have been worked into the tournament in the absence of having race cars to carry their brand.
And now the contest has entered the “Elite Eight” – pairing some of the team’s most famous competitors in the contest. The No. 1 seed, NASCAR Hall of Famer Martin, faces current driver Newman – ironically both drivers of the team’s No. 6 Ford. Roush’s former series champion driver Kenseth – another No. 1 seed – faces FOX Sports television analyst Jeff Burton in the other side of that bracket.
Greg Biffle, who won the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championships for Roush, faces David Ragan. And longtime Roush driver and a No. 1 seed Carl Edwards faces No. 3 seeded Jamie McMurray in the other side of that bracket.
Martin said he’s certainly been watching this Roush competition and humbly suggests he’s just happy to have advanced to this point along with so many drivers he genuinely admires.
“You know me, if I was voting I would be voting for someone else, there have been some absolute greats at Roush Fenway Racing that have accomplished more than I ever accomplished and are my favorite people in the world,” Martin said this week. “That’s a huge compliment in itself [to be a part of the contest].”
If he were to pick the true champion in it all, Martin would certainly be selecting Roush. His former team owner is still someone he admires greatly and someone who he credits for not only providing him the professional chance of a lifetime, but the chance to capitalize on it.
For Martin, the “Roush Madness” bracket is part fun and engaging and part opportunity to remind people of the amazing organization that Jack Roush built from the ground up – hiring talented people and believing in their potential before they were big names. He includes himself in that category as well as all the others remaining in the bracket. From driver to crew chief to crewman, Martin points out that Roush’s entire bracket features raw talent that prevailed thanks to the unwavering belief and support of an owner with a key eye and genius mind.
“What’s important to your story is that nobody in NASCAR has done as much for the little guy as Jack Roush has – period,” Martin said.
“Jack Roush should be in the Hall of Fame for that alone. What he did. Jack was not the guy to go buy it, he built it. He looked at people and said, ‘That guy wanted it like I want it.’ And that’s important to me.
“That is a Hall of Fame contribution above and beyond anyone else in NASCAR history to this point, in my opinion.”
As for which driver will prevail in the team’s compelling contest, there are no losers here.
“The fact I had to go against Ryan Newman in the second round was wild, I mean I was like, I’m voting for Ryan here, that guy definitely deserves to be in the Final Four without a doubt or the final match-up,” Daly said emphatically.
“It’s all been so fun.”
And that’s the idea, after all.