Three-time champ at the forefront of Stewart-Haas Racing struggles
Tony Stewart finished third a year ago at Richmond International Raceway, extending a string of solid efforts that dated back to his epic championship run the season before. Fresh off his first title, he was showing early-season strength unusual for a driver whose best didn’t typically kick in until the summer and fall. With two victories already, his berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was effectively secured. After leading 118 laps on the Virginia short track, there seemed the potential for many more to come.
What a contrast that time feels like to now, when Stewart limps back to Richmond in the midst of the worst start of his proud and illustrious career. It has become painful to watch, a driver of Stewart’s caliber riding around every week in the middle of the pack. His 21st-place finish at Kansas continued a five-week slog since Stewart’s last competitive run, 11th at Las Vegas. He’s 21st in the standings, the lowest he has ever been through eight races, and his slowest start since he was 14th at this point in 2005.
Of course, Stewart rebounded to win his second premier-series championship that year, when he used a furious summertime spurt to effectively distance himself from the field. Is he capable of that this season? It’s the same driver behind the wheel, so it would be foolish to sell Smoke short. But eight years ago, an early engine failure played a key role in his slow start. This time around, a wreck at Daytona -- where he seemed the man to beat entering the 500 -- certainly hasn’t helped. But the more this year goes on, the more it seems something else is
Because it’s not just Stewart -- it’s all of Stewart-Haas Racing that appears to be behind in its development of the new Generation-6 car that debuted on the Sprint Cup tour this season. SHR may get its chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, but it’s still ultimately up to SHR personnel to prepare and tune the vehicles. And judging from the results turned in by Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick much of this season, the entire organization seems to be searching.
No question, the implementation of a new car with a completely redesigned body style and increased mechanical grip presented a challenge for every team in NASCAR’s top series, and entering the season there seemed to be a consensus -- whoever hit on something quickest would have an advantage. Look at the start Joe Gibbs Racing is off to, particularly on intermediate tracks, and it’s easy to believe that’s the case. But eight races in, equally as important seems to be what teams have missed it, or at least struggled to adapt as quickly.
SHR is clearly foremost among that group, but it’s not alone there. Richard Childress Racing has endured its growing pains with the new car, and although RCR hasn’t really been a threat to win a race, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick each seem to have found a degree of consistency that’s keeping them at least on the fringes of Chase contention. There’s plenty of work still to be done, of course, but last week at Kansas -- where Menard was 10th and Harvick 12th -- could be viewed as forward progress.
Harvick’s future car owner, meanwhile, was back there with Regan Smith and David Gilliland, drivers at a vast disadvantage to Stewart in terms of money and manpower. We’re not exactly early in the season, either -- it’s nearly May, long enough for teams to determine the difference between bad luck and something more systemic. Other drivers who have endured poor starts, like Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr., have been able to hang their helmets on runs that represent what they might be capable of. For Stewart, every week now is a grind.
Given how beloved Stewart is by much of the fan base, and how much more interesting things are when he’s in contention -- who can forget the “he’s not going to sleep for three weeks” challenge to Carl Edwards two years ago? -- none of this is good news. But it might have been predictable, given that this year SHR as an organization is clearly in flux, with one driver coming in, another potentially going out, and plenty of infrastructure shuffles needed to accommodate both of them.
Never has Stewart carried more on his shoulders, given that Patrick is a work in progress, and Newman is in the midst of a one-year deal. No question, it seemed necessary to pair Patrick with crew chief Tony Gibson and what used to be the No. 39 crew, given how well the personalities involved meshed together, and how much a rookie driver needed a veteran on the pit box. But Patrick’s development is ongoing, and despite runs like those at Daytona and Martinsville, she isn’t going to transform into a Chase contender overnight.
In short, you have a lot of resources dedicated to a longer-term goal, and any immediate success is a bonus. And then there’s Newman, who doesn’t have the likes of a GoDaddy -- SHR’s biggest sponsor at the moment -- behind him, and signed a one-year extension with Harvick ostensibly waiting in the wings. Stewart and his management team have done a fine job cobbling together a sponsorship package for the No. 39 car, but at the start of the season Newman’s crew was still a relatively new group, and crew chief Matt Borland hadn’t worked a full campaign in seven years.
Given all that, Newman’s 17th-place position in the points -- and top-10 finishes in two of his last three races -- is probably more impressive than it gets credit for. Particularly in light of the struggles endured so far this season by Stewart, whose No. 14 team entered the year as the one ready-made title contender in the SHR stable. Yes, the cars have been a work in progress. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a rookie driver, or even a more experienced one with a relatively green crew, would wrestle with them. But a three-time champion who seems capable of winning in any kind of vehicle on the planet? That’s something very different.
Granted, there’s a lot of season to go. Of Stewart’s 47 victories at the premier level, only four have come before May. His strength is the summer, when tracks get hot and slick, and all that car control honed in his sprint-car days comes into play. Earlier this year at Las Vegas, Stewart started with a car that was wrecking loose and wrung an 11th-place finish out of it, in as vivid a display of his driving prowess as we’ve seen all season. The dude can still wheel it. Underestimate him at your own risk.
But as recent weeks have shown, not even a driver of Stewart’s caliber can do it all by himself. Eventually the cars have to get better, and the team has to progress from scrambling to building. Richmond, a track where Stewart has won three times and is riding a streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes, seems as good a place as any to begin a turnaround. But it would still be quite a surprise to see him lead 118 laps and finish third Saturday night, even if it all seemed so natural just a year ago.