Will the real Stewart-Haas Racing please stand up?
Sunday's dominant performance by Kevin Harvick was the cap on an amazing start to 2015 for the defending Sprint Cup champion. After consecutive second place finishes, Harvick took control of the Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas and never let go. It's the kind of result that Harvick expected when he signed on to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing. He believed that Hendrick cars plus co-owner Tony Stewart's drive would prove to be a winning combination. And while that's been true for Kevin, the results of his teammates are eerily similar to that of his last three years at Richard Childress Racing. The contrast in performance has NASCAR observers asking themselves which is the real SHR?
For years, Kevin Harvick carried RCR in terms of on track results. From 2011 through 2013, Harvick accounted for 90% of the team's wins, 62% of its top five finishes and a whopping 73.7% of the team's laps led. Those results came in running only 33% of the team's races. Excluding Harvick, RCR had one win, 14 top five finishes, zero pole starts and only 331 laps led. It took a total of six drivers 228 Sprint Cup starts to achieve those results against 108 Cup starts for Harvick. With the Dillon boys coming, Harvick didn't want the burden of carrying an organization whose primary efforts went to someone else.
Yet in just over a year's time at SHR, Harvick has once again become the lone bright spot for his organization. He has six wins and 17 top five finishes in 39 races; the other SHR drivers combined have one win and nine top five finishes in 117 events. The laps led category is even worse as Harvick has accounted for nearly 87% of the team total. He has an average finish of 7th versus 25th for the rest of the team. The numbers are staggering and they are even worse when you consider that the other drivers (Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch) have a combined four Sprint Cup trophies.
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To be sure, there are plenty of reasons why things have not gone as intended at SHR of late. Stewart, the team's co-owner and three time Cup champion, has had his last two seasons derailed in August sprint car incidents. Kurt Busch has yet to drive a points-paying race in 2015 thanks to a suspension from NASCAR. And the team's other driver, Danica Patrick, has yet to live up to the potential Stewart saw in her three years ago.
Yet despite all of those distractions, any casual observer would have expected more than “Kevin Harvick and Those Other People” at SHR. The team has full sponsorship across the board, including Haas Automation on the hood of Busch's car. The #41 team has the full support of co-owner Gene Haas; after all, his name is on the hood. The cars come direct from Hendrick Motorsports, perhaps the greatest car and engine builder in NASCAR today. The team also participates in technical exchanges with Hendrick, gaining a wealth of knowledge from drivers with ten Sprint Cup championships.
Harvick's results are proof-positive that the situation can be a winning combination. He won the championship last season in dramatic fashion. His closest competitor at homestead was Ryan Newman- ironically, the driver he replaced at SHR and the driver that replaced him at RCR. Harvick took a team that struggled to win a single race in 2013 and carried them to five wins and 20 top ten finishes. And the win total could have been much higher as Harvick was denied several victories due to poor luck and pit crew performance. With the pit issues seemingly solved, 2015 has started off just as 2014 finished, with Kevin running at or near the front all race long.
Part of the credit for the difference has to go to Harvick's crew chief, Rodney Childers. He spent five seasons at Michael Waltrip Racing as one of the team's mainstays. He guided David Reutimann to his only two Sprint Cup victories and combined to win another race with Brian Vickers in 2013. Just as important in that 2013 performance was his ability to hold the #55 team together despite a patchwork driver schedule that saw three drivers split a part time schedule. When he joined SHR in 2014, he brought plenty of new ideas and outside thinking toward building the perfect team for Kevin Harvick. But Childers alone cannot explain the disparity between Harvick and his teammates.
Indeed, Harvick's numbers are above-average even when compared to his pseudo-teammates at Hendrick. When looking at those numbers, Harvick's six wins would still account for 30% of the overall count- and it took the Hendrick drivers 156 races to get their 14. Harvick would also have 27% of the top five finishes and a eye-popping 42% of the laps led. The fact that he beat all four drivers (and everyone else in NASCAR) to the Sprint Cup title a year ago is the final piece to the puzzle.
Harvick has persevered and indeed thrived in an environment that he seemingly wanted to leave behind. He knows how to maximize the resources of an organization- even if those around him fail to do likewise. After Sunday's win, he noted, “We're going to race every week like we have never won a race before. That's the kind of determination that you need when you are going to do this stuff.”
Watch the end of the Kobalt 400 on YouTube
That statement is a compliment to the entire #4 team but it's also a shot across the bow of the rest of the organization. He's saying that despite winning last year's championship, the #4 team is still hungry. And what's unsaid but equally true is that the other teams at Stewart-Haas Racing are not coming to the table with the same hunger. They haven't reached the same level of desperation that the defending series champion has. And if they want to join him in victory lane, they're going to need to find that within themselves. This is particularly true for Stewart, the three time Cup champion.
Tony Stewart has long been known as a driver who does his best work when the temperatures go up and the tracks get slick. Yet despite a racetrack whose average temperature was over 100 degrees, Stewart was never a factor. His best position all day long was 13th (where he started). He ran in the 28-34 range all race long and finished a dismal five laps down in 33rd. This on the heels of a 30th place finish in Atlanta where he was six laps down.
Smoke still has plenty of time to put it all together. The season is only three races in and 24 races remain before NASCAR's playoffs begin. All he really needs is to win one race between now and then and the rest will take care of itself. He's simply too talented and his equipment is too good for Stewart to continue to be a Sprint Cup also-ran. And Stewart more than anyone else knows that once the Chase starts all bets are off.
Yet Harvick's win raises an important question. Who really is Stewart-Haas Racing? Is it a powerhouse with elite equipment and the defending champion in house? Or a one car operation that happens to put four cars on the starting grid? Is the organization capable of fielding multiple competitive cars or has the strain of supporting four cars stretched them beyond their talent level? And if that's the case, just how much longer will Stewart take it? Patience has never been Smoke's strong suit. As much as anyone else, he has to be waiting for the real Stewart-Haas Racing to stand up and be counted.