BRISTOL, Tenn. - Just when it was becoming chic to bash Roush Racing - or even worse, forget them - the beleaguered team finally managed some salvo for this afternoon's Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Once one of the most-powerful racing organizations on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Roush has known nothing but humility this season. His fleet of four race cars have combined for just two top-10 finishes this year, and it only got marginally better today with Mark Martin on the pole but his other cars mired deep in the starting lineup.
Just five races deep into the 10-month season, all four of Roush's Ford Taurus are so far back in the point standings, it will take a stirring rally, if not a miracle, to get back into contention.
Maybe today's 500-lap race (1 p.m., Fox) can be a start.
"I'm just explaining to you that we are not junk or bottom of the barrel," Martin said. "We're wherever we are in the points, not because we've run that bad, it's because we wrecked at Daytona, we broke an engine, we had a horrible day in the pits at Rockingham and then we had a great day in the pits at Darlington and ran bad. So when you tie it all together, it's been something different all the time."
Of the four drivers in Roush's garage, Martin is having the best season - and he's got one top-10 finish and is ranked a team-best 22nd in the current point standings.
Matt Kenseth, last year's rookie of the year and the winner of Saturday's Busch Series race at Bristol, is ranked 27th with no top-10 finishes, while rookie Kurt Busch is 29th with one top-10. Jeff Burton, who started the season as the favorite in Las Vegas to win the championship, is stuck back in 35th place in the standings with no top-10 finishes.
Roush's troubles started before the first lap of the year. He had to close down his fifth team and fire driver Kevin Lepage after he couldn't find a sponsor. Busch's car currently isn't sponsored, although Roush is expected to announce a deal with Rubbermaid next week at Fort Worth, Tex.
Martin, who has finished no worse than eighth in the point standings since 1989, won the pole position with a fast lap of 126.303 mph on Friday. It was the first time all season the driver's managed a smile.
"It's been real humbling for me," Martin said. "I know that I try as hard as I can. I know the people around me are working and trying. I try to accept the results and expect 100 percent on the effort side.
"I want to be a good, solid top-five car like we were here last year. If we can do that on occasion, then we'll squeak out a win here or there. I'd like to win this one, but it will come right down to the same thing: having the right setup for the 500 laps like we had the right setup for one lap (during qualifying)."
While Martin is showing signs of breaking from his early-season slump, the rest of the Roush roster is still struggling. Kenseth is starting 24th today, while Burton is 32nd and Busch is 39th.
Sterling Marlin, who lives three hours away in Columbia, Tenn., will start second at 125.387 mph.
Rookie Kevin Harvick is third at 125.354 mph, followed by Rusty Wallace in fourth at 125.166, Todd Bodine in fifth at 124.946, Bobby Hamilton in sixth at 124.768, Kyle Petty in seventh at 124.743, Dave Blaney in eighth at 124.703, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ninth at 124.695 and Ken Schrader in 10th at 124.597.
Series leader Dale Jarrett, who is the fifth different leader in the standings after five races, will start back in 19th place.
If Burton hopes to turn his season around this afternoon, it will require a record-setting effort. Since he failed to qualify in the top 21, he will be relegated to the backstretch pits. Since drivers on the frontstretch are able to complete stops under caution before drivers on the backstretch get to their pit stalls, only two of 40 winners in Bristol history have won from the backstretch pits. The deepest any driver has started the race and won at Bristol is 26th. That was done in 1999 when Dale Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte on the final lap to win.
"It's certainly not been what we hoped it would be," Burton said. "We have done way more wrong than we've done right, there's no question about it.
"It's not because our team is struggling from a performance standpoint. Some people want to make a big deal out of our qualifying, but I contend our qualifying is the same as it's always been. Unfortunately, we haven't improved that. We surely hoped that we would improve it, but we haven't showed any signs that we have."