Does Tony Stewart’s win at Dover Sunday signal the beginning of a second-half surge for Stewart Haas Racing?
Not so fast, cowboy. Stewart may have been a Top-10 car late in Sunday’s race, but he only became a contender for the win after crew chief Steve Addington – the guy some media members had pegged for the unemployment line a week ago – rolled the dice with some savvy, late-race pit road strategy. Stewart’s victory likely did wonders for SHR’s bruised collective psyche, but it does not change the fact that teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick struggled horribly once again. As of now, Stewart holds the first Wild Card berth for the 2013 Chase. To keep it, however, Stewart Haas Racing will have to find more race day speed.
There is no question that former Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch has elevated the level of play at Furniture Row Racing. The team has as many Top-5 finishes this season (3) as in its entire, eight-year history prior to Busch’s arrival, and they have led at least two laps in each of the last five races.
Unfortunately, FRR has yet to find the consistency to go with its speed. Four Top-10 finishes this season have been countered by six showings of 20th or worse, including a trio of 30-somethings at Martinsville, Texas and Talladega. At the halfway mark of the regular season, Busch remains a distant 17th in the title chase, 34 points behind NASCAR’s resident “Steady Eddie,” Paul Menard, who ranks tenth. By Busch’s own admission, the next few tracks on the track schedule do not rank high on his list of favorites. Unfortunately, there is no more room for missteps. Both Busch and his race team need to achieve at a consistently high level over the next 13 weeks to have any hope of a Chase berth.
At this point, they seem unlikely to do so.
Denny Hamlin’s 2013 season seemed to have ended before it began. A fractured vertebra suffered in a crash in Week 5 of the season at Auto Club Speedway sidelined him for four weeks, and while his performance since returning to the cockpit at Talladega has been nothing short of spectacular, his finishes have not always been indicative of his speed.
Hamlin ran only a few laps at `Dega before yielding the seat to relief driver Brian Vickers, not long before Vickers was swept-up in a multi-car crash that left Hamlin with a 34th-place finish at the drop of the checkered flag. A pair of solid, Top-5 runs at Darlington and Charlotte instilled some much-needed optimism into his Fed Ex Toyota team, but another crash at Dover Sunday – and another 34th-place finish – now leaves them 26th in points, a whopping 122 behind Menard. That’s a three-race deficit with only 13 races remaining until the Chase, and at the risk of sounding like a Denny Downer, that’s simply not going to happen.
Even the Top-20 is 74 points away at present, and a Top-20 point finish only helps if Hamlin can win two of the next 13 races. With no wins in his nine starts so far, that will also be a tall order.
One year ago, Brad Keselowski won five races and collected 13 Top-5 and 23 Top-10 finishes en route to a storybook NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Fast-forward 12 months, and “Bad Brad” ain’t quite so bad. He has yet to win a race, and currently ranks a disappointing eighth in the championship standings. He also faces his second NASCAR penalty in the last month, in the aftermath of some post-race ride height issues at Dover. Teammate Joey Logano has managed only 5 Top-10 finishes so far, and is 18th in points.
Ford Motor Company currently has only two cars the championship Top-10 – Carl Edwards is second – and has graced Victory Lane only twice in 13 starts this season. As a group, the Blue Oval has some work to do if it hopes to challenge Chevrolet for the 2013 Manufacturer’s Championship. Similarly, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe may be hard-pressed to defend their 2012 driver’s championship.
Not often, but yes.
When Jimmie Johnson left leader Juan Pablo Montoya floundering in his wake on a critical, late-race restart, NASCAR’s top crew chief had an opportunity to minimize the damage by instructing his driver to “give the spot” back, as required by NASCAR. Instead, Knaus inexplicably ordered his driver to continue racing at full speed, forcing the sanctioning body to black-flag Johnson for a pit road drive-through penalty. Had Johnson simply allowed Montoya to regain the lead, he could have immediately re-passed the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing driver and won the race. Instead, Knaus’ momentary bout of hard-headedness left his team 17th at the drop of the checkers.
Knaus doesn’t drop the ball often, but Sunday’s miscue was a doozy.
Word leaked out last November that Kevin Harvick will exit Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season, to accept a new position with Stewart Haas Racing. The timing of that announcement was less than ideal for both driver and team, who must now muddle their way through a 12-month “lame duck” period before parting company after the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
To the surprise of many, Harvick and RCR have proven that this particular duck can fly. A pair of early wins at Richmond and Charlotte make Harvick a virtual shoo-in for the 2013 Chase, and other than a pair of crashes in the season’s two restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, he has yet to finish outside the Top-15. And eighth-place finish Sunday on the Monster Mile has Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet a solid fourth in championship points, and while he doesn’t seem ready to go head-to-head with Jimmie Johnson for title just yet, Harvick is not far from being a title contender.
That’s anything but lame.