Future is now for Stewart-Haas Racing
LOUDON – Sitting in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Tony Stewart put the focus on the future of his Stewart-Haas Racing team. He revealed that Kevin Harvick’s arrival next season would mean Ryan Newman’s departure. He discussed some of what that meant for the team moving forward. He talked a lot about 2014.
But – belying instinct in a sport predicated on speed, and in which silly season hardly stops – the owner/driver might not want to move on from 2013 quite so fast.
Because suddenly it’s starting to look like a season Stewart may want to savor, especially as the owner-driver rolls onto one of his sweet spots today in Loudon.
By now, Stewart is up to 10th in points, and the soon-to-be-eschewed Newman would probably join him among those projected for an invite to NASCAR’s playoffs with a win today – on a track where he’s already won three Sprint Cup races.
But the end-game prospects for this season haven’t always looked quite so positive for the team, which initially struggled in adapting to a couple of changes that required significant alterations in the way they went about their business over the organization’s first four seasons.
One was an issue the entire tour was forced to deal with, as the sanctioning body unveiled a new Cup car that required everyone to reassess and reconfigure. Behind the wheel, all three SHR drivers – Stewart, Newman and Danica Patrick – admittedly struggled in identifying what adjustments their new rides needed, and their cars certainly needed something, as Stewart says the stable had difficulties building their machines behind the scenes, too – particularly when it came to achieving the proper balance.
“With the new car, there were a lot of parts and a lot of things that we had to really wait late in the offseason to get completed,” Stewart said. “I think for us, we got ourselves behind with that.”
As a result, Stewart finished 21st or worse in six of the season’s first 10 races. In that same span, Newman was four times 31st or worse. And Patrick, despite winning the pole and running with the leaders in the final laps of the Daytona 500, was 30th in the standings through the first dozen events of her rookie Cup season.
After the operation successfully put its cars in the Chase six times in its first eight tries, Patrick represented the high-profile acquisition that keyed Stewart-Haas’s expansion to a third full-time ride – though the team’s early troubles speak to the second change that SHR was in the midst of undertaking.
While championship-level teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have over the past decade made it look as though bigger is always better, adding a new car to an established Cup team doesn’t automatically make the team stronger.
Take Richard Childress Racing’s 2009 season as an example. In 2007 and ’08, RCR had three full-time Cup cars, and all three cars qualified for the Chase in both of those seasons. In 2009, however, the outfit attempted to add a fourth car to its stable – and none of the four cars finished better than 15th in the season standings.
A year later, Childress trimmed back to three cars. And again all three of his rides went Chasing for a championship.
RCR learned its lesson in a year, though it appears Stewart-Haas didn’t need quite so long to figure things out. The owner/driver doesn’t buy the expansion as an excuse or an explanation – “I think we have got enough depth there to cover the three teams,” Stewart said last week. “We planned for all the expansion over the winter” – so he’s sticking with the three-team setup next year, when Harvick’s No. 4 joins his own 14 and Patrick’s 10.
And recent results suggest that’s a configuration that can have success. In fact, they show that after three months of mediocrity, the three-time series champ and team kingpin is again running among the circuit’s very best, and Newman is performing at a level where he could be a factor, too.
In the seven races since those two Stewart-Haas cars finished sixth and seventh on Memorial Day weekend, Stewart has scored more points than all but two Cup pilots (Harvick and Clint Bowyer). After scoring 250 points over the first 11 contests, he has 246 in the last seven, and with that surge he’s moved from 20th in the standings all the way up to 10th.
Newman, meanwhile, has scored 206 points over that span. That’s within a couple points of what Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have done in similar time, and at third and seventh in the standings, respectively, both of those drivers are considered legitimate Cup contenders.
And for her part, Patrick has climbed five places, up to 25th, and while she has a lower total of 147 points over the past seven races, that’s about on par with reigning series champ – and Camping World RV Sales 301 polesitter – Brad Keselowski.
Things are running much smoother, and they promise to get even better, considering the entire team is on pace to lead just 124 laps this season – which is 290 fewer than the career-low of Stewart alone. As they run toward the front more frequently, they should get there more often, and with that will come points, bonus points, as well as chances for wins.
And today might be as good a time as any for those to start piling up. In addition to having tested at NHMS with the whole team a couple weeks ago, Stewart has led in 10 of his last 11 starts at Loudon, ranking fourth among active drivers with an 11.4 average finish, while Newman has 15 top-10 performances in 22 Cup appearances. They’ll share the eighth row at the start of the race today.
And while by this time next year they won’t be sharing much of anything, 2014 can wait.