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Ford flexing plenty of muscle in the Sprint Cup garage

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dan Davis couldn't stop smiling as he watched NASCAR officials tear down Carl Edwards' car two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway. He had a look of satisfaction as though he, not the backflipping star from Roush Fenway Racing, had driven the green and black Ford to Victory Lane.

It was a stark contrast from his demeanor a year ago.

"We were like, 'Wow! We're behind,'" recalled Davis, the director of Ford Racing Technology.

Ford had only one victory in 2007's first eight events, that by Matt Kenseth in Week 2. In three races with the Car of Tomorrow, the manufacturer was winless with only four top-10s, none better than fifth.

Rival Chevrolet had seven wins, including all three races in the COT and 23 top-10s in the new car. Hendrick Motorsports, the top Chevrolet team, had five wins and was so dominant in the COT the rest of the competition looked clueless.

"I really felt like we didn't have the engineering base that they had at Hendricks," Davis said. "I felt like, 'OK, it's going to be a struggle all year, and we've got to work really hard to catch up.'"

That they did.

Two-thirds through the 2007 season, Ford -- specifically Roush Fenway -- had all but eliminated the deficit it faced in the new car.

And eight races into the 2008 season, despite Jimmie Johnson's win last weekend at Phoenix to give HMS its first win, one could even argue Ford has taken over the top spot.

Edwards' victory at Texas was Ford's third in seven races. Two top-10s at Phoenix gave the manufacturer 18, including eight top-5s, in the new car, which was fully implemented for this season.

And Ford's performance so far would have been even more impressive had Edwards not blown an engine while leading late at Atlanta.

"I'm not sure we're way ahead of anybody," Davis said, still smiling. "But we're just as good as anybody."

The turnaround began when Jack Roush, the co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, admitted he had made a mistake by not testing the COT like HMS and most of the other major organizations had. He started a full-time test team and began working with the Ford engineers, as Davis had been pushing him to do for years.

"We've always had a lot of engineers with good ideas they couldn't seem to get in," Davis said. "A part of it was Jack's own organization. They had crew chiefs that didn't like each other. They weren't sharing data. They had all this internal competition, so it made it hard to do anything."

The philosophies finally meshed in August, when a Ford engineer provided the setup to Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne, who passed it along to Greg Biffle's team.

"They were rockets," Davis said, recalling the 1-2 finish by Edwards and Biffle at Bristol Motor Speedway. "Everybody stood around and went, 'Whoa!' We just went from a not very good Car of Tomorrow to very strong.'

"That was the start of them saying, 'Hey, this stuff works.'"

Since then, Roush Fenway has won seven of 20 races, six of 14 in the new car. Edwards has won five times in the new car, only one fewer than Johnson, who went on a late-season tear to win his second straight title.

The results are reflected in the points standings. Heading into the open weekend, Edwards is ninth and would be second were it not for a 100-point penalty issued after his win at Las Vegas. Biffle is 10th, followed by Kenseth in 15th and David Ragan in 18th.

David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil of Yates Racing, which formed a partnership with Roush this season, aren't far behind at 21st and 24th.

"We weren't very good this time a year ago," Edwards said. "At Richmond, Denny Hamlin went by me, and I specifically made a mental note to myself that we were in big-ass trouble. He was running on a point of the track where I knew my car couldn't go fast and was about a half a second faster than me.

"I thought, 'Man, there is not one thing I can do to my car, balance wise, to make it that fast.' Now we're going to go to Richmond [in a couple of weeks] to win. We've come miles."

Test, test and test
Pat Tryson roamed through the garage last May at Lowe's Motor Speedway, pondering which team he would turn to after being released as Biffle's crew chief at Roush Fenway.

He said differences in philosophy -- a major one being over the lack of testing, which he felt was the reason the company had fallen so far behind -- led to his dismissal.

"You've got to do more testing than what [Roush has] been doing," he said at the time.

Roush admitted that shortly after parting with Tryson. He hired six people and dedicated a tractor-trailer to a full-time test team. Edwards was a major part of the test program, which Tryson believes is the reason he's been so dominant.

"I can't comment too much on all the engineering support," said Tryson, now the crew chief for Kurt Busch at Penske Racing. "But the reason they're running better, whether they're getting more support from Ford or whatever, is because they did more testing.

"And the driver that did all the testing is running the best."

Edwards said that is merely coincidental, adding, "The one good thing is when I do go test, everybody knows the same thing."

They've got it
figured out.

-- Clint Bowyer on Ford

Davis acknowledges testing has made a huge difference, but he's not sure it would have been enough to close the gap so fast had engineers at Roush and Ford not worked together.

Assigning Scott Ahlman to transfer his high-tech knowledge from Formula One and the Champ Car World Series into NASCAR was a major move. Others with expertise in other fields of motorsports also were asked to focus their skills on stock cars.

"We've probably increased our NASCAR load a good 50 percent," Davis said.

Pat DiMarco, the lead engineer for Ford Racing Technology, said it wasn't so much the increase in support that made the difference as it was getting everybody on the same page.

"We were working all along with them," he said. "It's just the confidence in the tools and people we were using at the time that the team needed to accept. I use the analogy, 'You can't push a rope until the other end of the rope is pulling a little bit.'

"That's the way it was. It's one small thing that builds as you go along."

DiMarco said it's no coincidence the turnaround took off after the seven-post rig -- a device used by engineers to simulate forces of lateral load, vertical load and everything key to determining the proper setup at a specific track -- was installed at Roush Fenway in August.

Just as important was getting crew chiefs and drivers to believe in the data the engineers provided.

"It's like all the stars aligned at the same time," DiMarco said. "They were able to accept what we were able to help them with, and we've been able to help them."

Chris Andrews, the engineering manager at Roush and interim crew chief for Edwards while Osborne sits out a six-week suspension for the Las Vegas infraction, said Roush's relationship with Ford engineers is stronger than any he witnessed at General Motors and Dodge.

"It's been really fun to be a part of getting where we are," he said. "It's kind of got a bit of a snowball effect. The better we run, the better we work together. The more we work together, the better it makes the cars."

The cars were so good toward the end of last season that Edwards wouldn't have traded his for anybody else's in the garage, including those at HMS.

He still wouldn't.

"I thought we had the best car," he said. "I'm proud of what Jack and Bob and all the engineers did last year when we saw how far behind we were. The reaction and the action that came after that is what got us here today."

Communication
Even when Roush had five teams in the 2005 Chase, even when Kenseth and Kurt Busch were winning titles in 2003 and 2004, Davis wasn't completely happy with the flow of information at Roush.

"It was really hard," he said. "There was sort of competition within the organization, so everyone tried to one-up everyone else. One would have something they'd found worked and they wouldn't share it. So now you have five teams doing five different things.

"We at Ford can't keep up with five individuals in five different projects."

Jeff Burton, who drove for Roush Fenway until midway through the 2004 season, saw that to a small extent. So did Edwards.

"That's just competition," Edwards said. "When somebody is running really well, they don't want everybody to see everything. We've been doing a pretty good job of getting that out of the system."

Now when one team tests or hits on a certain setup, everybody gets the same information. No holding back.

"The biggest growth has been the trust that the actual race team, driver, crew chiefs and teams have in Roush's engineering department," DiMarco said. "The success that engineers have had has given them camaraderie, and everybody seems to be working together because of it.

"And it's not like they didn't work together before. But when one team had a problem and there was nobody there to solve it, they would try to solve it by themselves. Now you have a centralized source to help solve the problem so they can go racing."

And race they have. The competitors certainly have noticed a difference.

"They've got it figured out," said Clint Bowyer, who drives the No. 07 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and is eighth in points. "Just from what I can see, they're able to arc the corner, getting into the corner, a lot better than most people.

"Seems like you're loose in the corner a lot with these cars, and they're ale to do that and keep momentum going through the corners."

He gets no argument from Edwards, who played a cat-and-mouse game with reporters at Texas when asked if he was holding back.

"All I know is when I go out there and run at places like Texas, and even Phoenix, I felt like my car would do things that it looked like other guys couldn't do with their cars," he said.

"A year ago, we were the opposite. I was watching other people do things with their car that I couldn't do, no matter how hard I tried."

Those things have Davis smiling these days. He hopes to continue smiling as the season wears on, although he's sure others will close the gap on Ford the way Ford did on Hendrick last season.

He'd smile even more if he could get the Wood Brothers, the only Ford team not under the Roush Fenway umbrella, back in the top 35 and at least up to the level of Yates Racing.

"It's funny," Davis said. "Some guys were telling me at the [preseason] media tour that we've got something here. I'm not ready to say we've arrived, but we've come a long way."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.