Monday, Aug 08

Stewart-Haas Racing Continues to be Amongst NASCAR Elites

In the middle of 2008, Tony Stewart took a chance of a lifetime. Like an everyday citizen, taking a risk has its rewards, but also has many downfalls along the way. The grizzly veteran’s move to join Gene Haas and create a NASCAR super team has paid off.

Prior to Stewart joining Haas as a co-owner, the team had never won a race. The highest finishing driver that Haas had ever been a part of was Mike Bliss in 2005 and Jeff Green in 2006 each finishing 28th in the championship standings.

Once Stewart made the move to invest in the team, it instantly gave Haas CNC Racing more credibility. Over the span of the seven full-time seasons that the duo has been together as owners, it has resulted in great success. The organization has accumulated two championships, 30 wins, 136 top fives and 258 top-10 finishes to go along with 26 poles.

The team was running strong in the summer of 2013 before releasing Ryan Newman. However, in the next race, he went out and won the 2013 edition of the Brickyard 400 for the No. 39 team. But then, it was announced that the organization was adding 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch after he had a successful season with Furniture Row Racing. With an already announced Kevin Harvick coming over the driver lineup at SHR became one of the fiercest companies in all of motorsports.

As Stewart approaches his final season behind the wheel of a stock car, he personally has nothing to worry about as far as his career. He has had a dismal three seasons. But those years will not define the legacy he has left on the sport.

Stewart knows that his team needs to step up the game in order to have a successful season and make the Chase in his final year. He’s confident that with the addition of Mike Bugarewicz on top of the pit box, he has an opportunity for success. The new crew chief of the No. 14 car has led Harvick to two-consecutive winning seasons as the team engineer.

“I think we got two guys for sure that definitely have a great opportunity to race for a championship,” Stewart told Speedway Digest. “If you can win a race, you’ve got that opportunity. You don’t have to win every race to get to Homestead, Jeff proved that last year. I definitely feel like we have two drivers that have that opportunity to get to Homestead and be successful.”

The last two seasons have shaken Stewart’s confidence level. There is no reason why he can’t go out and be dominant like the old “Smoke.” The new aerodynamic package will be in his favor. It puts the car back into the drivers’ hands to an extent, and allows them to maneuver the car through traffic, something that he is magnificent at.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion is a living legend. No matter the outcome of his final year, he has had one of the most successful careers of any NASCAR driver, winning three championships and capturing 48 checkered flags. The Indiana native hasn’t forgotten how to drive, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he wins his first Daytona 500 in his final season behind the wheel of the No. 14.

“It’s a coin toss on what could happen with me,” Stewart said. “It could be the same, it could be worse, it could be better. If we make it any better I think it has potential to be a lot better. I’m excited about that opportunity on our side.”

If speed is any indication on the performance of SHR in the coming seasons, Harvick is one of the front-runners for the championship. Winning his first Cup title with the organization in 2014 and having the raw speed that he’s just never had before has elevated the No. 4 car as the one to beat week-in and week-out.

The team led by Rodney Childress is destined to do great things because there is simply no reason why they will struggle in 2016. Since the driver and crew chief combination began working together it has been the most successful combination in NASCAR.

Winning eight races in the last two seasons, and having a career-high 28 top-10 finishes just last season, Harvick is hitting on all eight cylinders as they approach the new year.

“I think as you look at the situations and scenarios that our team has had to deal with over the past couple of years with running well, kind of having that little bit of a target on your back, you learn to ignore a lot of those things,” Harvick said about winning the championship. “For us, it’s really about keeping your head down and trying to do the same things again.”

In his first two seasons with SHR, the California native has led more laps than he did in his previous 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. In 2015, he led a career-high and series-high 2,294 laps. But for him, that isn’t good enough. He wants more.

Harvick, 40, wants championships. He’s won every big race that there is to win. He’s a former Daytona 500 champion, Brickyard 400 champion, two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500.

 “We expect to go out and be competitive and hopefully be in position to win races, work hard on a weekly basis to try and do that,” Harvick said. “Your goal is to be around when it gets to Homestead every year.”

After coming up just short of winning two-consecutive championships, it has motivated Harvick and company to be better than they were last season. Finishing second was the theme of the year last season with 13 second-place finishes. The one that hurt the most was finishing second in the championship race to Kyle Busch, resulting in a second-place finish in the point standings.

“We constantly try to improve,” he said. “I think for us one of the big areas to improve on was Homestead. We didn’t feel like we ran as well as we should the last two years in that particular race, and we’ve already been back there and tested. We’ve changed some internal parts and pieces.

“We’ve added a lot of people from within the engineering department. We’ve added some time in the aero department. As a company we’ve definitely strengthened our self in a lot of departments to try to improve on that.”

One thing that improved throughout the 2015 season was the relationship between Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson. The No. 41 team had two wins, 10 top fives and 21 top-10 finishes, the most he has had since 2009 and tied for a career-high.

After competing in his second full season for SHR, Busch’s chemistry with the start-up team has been tremendous. He has gone from working with an engineer in Daniel Knost, to now two straight seasons with veteran crew chief, Gibson.

If it weren’t for a rain shortened race in Phoenix, potentially, the team could have been racing for a championship and slotted his car in the championship battle with with Harvick.

No one has ever questioned the Las Vegas native’s talent. He has had to build chemistry with numerous different crew chiefs over his tenure in the Cup Series, but working with Gibson is a lot like working with another old-school crew chief in Jimmy Fennig. When that dominant duo worked together, they won the championship.

“There is no reason to think that we can’t be front-runners,” Busch said. “With the results that Kevin has posted, especially him, we have to do a better job on the No. 41 car to mimic that, but for sure.

“Tony Stewart is going to have a new drive within him. He’s got a new crew chief and what I’m seeing is more collaboration amongst the four Stewart-Haas cars. It’s better than I’ve ever seen it before. I would definitely give us the thumbs up on being a front runner.”

Including Danica Patrick, all four of the SHR drivers have different personalities, which have allowed the team to grow closer together. Now as they enter their third season of working together, SHR has established itself as one of the top teams in NASCAR. Getting equipment and engines from Hendrick Motorsports won’t ever hurt, and the alliance has given SHR the boost it needs to compete for wins.  

In 2015, two of the teams performed, Patrick improved and Stewart is motivated as he begins his final season as a driver. Patrick is coming off of arguably her best season as she had a 23.5 average finish the best of her young career, and finished in the top 10 twice, down from her total of three in 2014.

After this season, SHR will look a lot different as Clint Bowyer will come in and drive the No. 14 car in replacement of the legend, so this year could be the most pivotal, yet fun year in the eight years of existence for Stewart-Haas Racing.

 

Dustin Albino

Dustin is a 20-year-old, currently studying journalism at Ithaca College. Albino has always wanted to report on NASCAR and beginning at the end of 2014 that is exactly what he did with Speedway Digest. Since that time he has become well-known around the garage area and is looking to attend even more races than he did in 2015. 

Twitter: @DustinAlbino
Instagram: @dustin_albino

 

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