Why Is Stewart-Haas Pulling Dillon After One Race?
No Comment So Far From Dillon
At the close of Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, speculation ran rampant that Mark Martin will take over the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet in next week's race at Bristol. At 54 years of age, Martin would provide a veteran presence to a team desperately needing one heading into the season's homestretch. Yet to pull Austin Dillon out of the car now would be a mistake.
Mark Martin is a legendary driver in NASCAR. Over the course of his career, he has a combined 89 wins between the Cup and Nationwide levels. He's finished second in the Cup season points five times, most recently in 2009 as a part of Hendrick Motorsports. He's run cars for a variety of different manufacturers and had he caught just one more caution Sunday would have had every chance to win the Pure Michigan 400. Being able to add a driver of his track record and experience would normally be a slam dunk for SHR- particularly given the contributions Martin could make behind the scenes in the years to come.
But this isn't the time and the #14 isn't the car. Martin has spent the entire season running a part time schedule in Toyotas for Michael Waltrip Racing. Despite his experience running for Hendrick, Martin would need time to acclimate to the equipment. He would need time to acclimate to the personnel as well. Adjusting to a new team, from a new manufacturer, with a new spotter, presents an undeniable challenge. Martin is accustomed to doing things a certain way and it would take time for the team to adjust to those methods. There's a reason why he's running only a part time schedule for MWR this season; after 30+ years at NASCAR's highest level, he's earned the right to do things the way he wants to do them.
Autographed Mark Martin Memorabilia
A One Shot Deal for Papis
More than that, putting Martin in the car right now would be a step backwards for the organization as a whole. When Max Papis strapped in at Watkins Glen, everyone involved understood that it was a one race deal. Papis is a road course specialist and a tester for SHR; given the timetable involved he was the only realistic choice available.
Putting Austin Dillon in the car was an entirely different deal. Dillon missed qualifying for the Nationwide race at Mid Ohio this past weekend solely for the purpose of practicing the SHR Cup car in Michigan. Dillon willingly did so, knowing that he would start dead-last at a tight road course not known for being easy to pass on. In a tight battle for the Nationwide series championship, Dillon accepted the handicap to run the #14 for SHR in a practice session. As noted philosopher Allen Iverson once said, we're talking about practice here. Not the game. Practice.
A.I. on Practice
Starting in Last Place
Missing practice was a commitment on Dillon's part and it's one that he must have made understanding that he had a level of commitment in return from the organization. No, Dillon was never in SHR's plans for 2014; he has his own ride waiting for him at Richard Childress Racing. But his action unmistakeably said to all that he was willing to throw out his own chance at a championship to do what was necessary for Stewart-Haas. It might have been a mistake but certainly the choice should have earned Dillon a certain amount of respect from the team.
And it's not as if Dillon did poorly driving the #14 on Sunday. No, he was never in contention for a victory as Martin was. That doesn't take anything away from the fact that his 14th place finish was a solid effort. Martin qualified well in the #55 then tumbled all the way to the mid-20's before pit strategy gave him a chance near the end. Dillon had an early spin and spent the entire race climbing back up the charts. He finished one slot behind teammate Ryan Newman and several spots ahead of teammate (and rookie) Danica Patrick. He also finished well ahead of Jeff Gordon (handling), Jimmie Johnson (engine) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (crash) who were running essentially the same equipment as him. Had Dillon struggled and finished 30th place three laps down, pulling him out of the car would be make sense; he would have proven that he was not ready for the challenge.
What Stewart-Haas Racing needs more than anything else right now is consistency. Patrick has struggled all season long. Ryan Newman is gone at the end of the year. They entered Michigan with Dillon in the #14 after a wasted week with Papis at Watkins Glen. Team owner Tony Stewart's medical condition is still in flux and it's impossible to say just when he'll be ready to get back in the car. It's possible that he won't be cleared to drive again in 2013. In that air of uncertainty, why keep putting new people in the cockpit? Why worry about the strain of yet another transition, this time to someone who hasn't driven a Chevrolet in Cup competition since 2011?
The Once and Future Daddy?
While no stories have surfaced, it's possible that something that happened during the week is forcing this change. Maybe the chemistry with Patrick and Newman wasn't right. Maybe crew chief Steve Addington struggled to understand what Dillon needed to make the care faster and believes they would be better off with Martin. Or maybe Smoke himself decided he didn't want to load up a future RCR driver with all of the Hendrick/SHR data that Dillon would need to be a part of to race the car going forward.
Or perhaps sponsor pressure is behind the change. While Dillon shares sponsor Bass Pro Shops with Stewart, they are not the only company on the car nor are they the primary sponsor for many of the upcoming races. Mobil One's statement after Stewart's injury was particularly curt; they basically said don't call us about this, talk to Stewart-Haas. Perhaps they were irked to find out Stewart planned on spending their millions on a rookie driver who will be gone next year. Martin, on the other hand, could be a part of the SHR organization for years to come. They do have room for another car, after all, and Martin has also been rumored to be looking a role mentoring new drivers instead of driving himself. It's also worth noting that GoDaddy sponsored Martin during his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports.
At the end, we're all on the outside looking in. Without all of the information used to make the decision, we may never know just why SHR is looking to replace Dillon after only one race. But if the decision to replace him was solely one made by the organization, it was the wrong one at the wrong time.