Throughout the Richmond race, I was watching Ryan Newman run toward the front, lead and contend for the win in a Stewart-Haas Chevrolet.
You know, those same Haas Chevrolets that consistently ran in the 30s as recently as last year. Those Haas cars that were as desperate to find driving talent as the driving talent sometimes was to find a Cup ride. Those Haas cars whose sponsors, once you got past Best Buy, had names like Hunt Brothers Pizza. That Haas team that had one car barely in the Top 35 and the other in the weekly fight to make the field, a fight it sometimes lost.
One year ago Haas CNC Racing had already reached obscurity, had an owner in jail, and certainly would have been teetering on the wrong side of bankruptcy in today’s climate. Today its co-owner/driver Tony Stewart is third in the points standings, but even Stewart is no longer a shoo-in to take the team’s first win, not after seeing Newman’s performance at Richmond. If any team should be called Phoenix Racing, it is Stewart-Haas.
I probably should have known better.
When Stewart announced his leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to co-own with Gene Haas last season, like many others, this writer was more than a little surprised. Stewart had won two championships with Gibbs and was part of a No. 20 team that was a threat every race, every season. And he was going to a team that barely had one car in the Top 35. It seemed more insane than Ray Evernham leaving the No. 24 to own his own team.
I was almost as baffled at Newman’s decision to leave Penske Racing for the apparent wilderness of a Haas team. Newman had just won the Daytona 500, and while he hadn’t been running as well as he had in the past, Penske was always showing signs of returning to form… and while no one knew at the time, it seems to be finally coming together for them this year. (Maybe it had something to do with firing Newman, as Rusty Wallace claimed was what really went down.) But even then, Penske still looked like a better bet.
Of course I wasn’t the only writer scratching his head at the move. I was initially going to go through articles from last year from writers who predicted that Stewart and Newman would run mid-pack at best for at least a couple of seasons, but I decided that I alone would take the fall for what was said in Happy Hour. But it certainly wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that such predictions were the ongoing “conventional wisdom” at the time. Most everyone, including me, figured the team would improve, but no one thought it would happen this quickly and this dramatically.
To put into perspective just how dramatic that improvement has been, consider that Stewart has scored three top fives in nine races this season. He has finished lower than 17th only twice, 17th once, and no worse than eighth in the other six races of 2009. The No. 70 car, whose owner points the 14 took, had a best finish of 16th in 30 races in 2008 – one of just three top 20s. Newman has scored three top 10s in nine races with the former No. 66 car, which scored three top-15 finishes all of last year – its only top 10 at Talladega, where everyone has a shot at a top 10 on a given week.
It’s difficult to believe it’s the same team.
Think of all the other recent mergers and team reorganizations – Earnhardt-Ganassi, the Roush-Yates engine program, the Childress-DEI engine program, or the newly formed Gillett Evernham/Petty team of Richard Petty Motorsports – none of them have come close to showing improvement on this scale. In fact, none have come close to showing improvement on any scale, unless you think Roush Fenway has benefited from their association with Yates, which is a fair argument.
Let this be a lesson to you, the faithful Frontstretch readers. We commentators might know a tiny bit about racing, but we still can’t select fantasy teams for squat. Remember that when you’re watching season previews for any sport.
What should I have known? That Stewart is a determined competitor. That he knows, after so many years, who the good people in this business are. And more than anything else, it was foolish to forget that the guy is one of the best ever to get behind the wheel of a stock car. That one should have been obvious. I’ve watched the guy outdrive his opponents for years.
By the way, one thing I didn’t consider was Stewart-Haas being just a two-car operation. I did say at one time that having to get their engines at Hendrick meant that they weren’t employing the best people on their own. But it never dawned on me to think that an organization would have trouble competing with likes of Hendrick and Roush Fenway running just two cars. Nor should it have, really.
Stewart, in addition to having proven many pundits wrong in a hurry, is also showing the racing world that a team doesn’t need 10 cars to be competitive on the racetrack. Right now Stewart is higher in the points standings than every driver from Roush Fenway, Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress. Only one Hendrick driver is outperforming him. And Tony’s stablemate is ahead of all but one Roush Fenway driver.
It could be, and has been said, that the two SHM teams are really just two more Hendrick teams, since Hendrick supplies engines and tech support to them. But that was the case last year, too, and few people talked about Hendrick having six teams when Johnny Sauter didn’t make the field. Getting engines and/or chassis from top teams helps, but ultimately its importance to a team’s success is probably overstated. It didn’t help Petty Enterprises much to get their stuff from Evernham. Roush Fenway and Yates are using the same engines to completely different levels of success.
Even using top equipment from successful teams, you still need a driver that can navigate through a three-wide tangle, a crew chief that can make smart adjustments and put together a strategy, and a crew that performs on pit road. Pit-road miscues especially have cost more than a couple of drivers wins this year… and flawless pit stops helped give Jeff Gordon a victory.
Explaining all this brings one to reality. It’s much easier to describe what has happened that to speculate what will happen. Perhaps that permanent and uncharacteristic excrement-eating grin on Stewart’s face this season stems from proving much of the motorsports press wrong.
But all the same, I should learn from my mistakes: never underestimate a competitor, give some credit to the driver for a team’s success, and most of all, you’re only as good or as bad as tomorrow. Crow tastes bad, but sometimes it’s good for the digestion.
So well done Tony. And in the future I’m going to try easier predictions until I get the hang of it.
- It was revealed that Mark Martin will run yet another season, on the same day that ESPN learned that Brett Favre is talking to the Vikings. Far be it for me to rush either of these first class and ageless gentlemen out of their respective sports, but they ought to at least give all of the retirement gifts back.
- David Reutimann has fallen out of the top 12, having unfortunately done all he could to get the Aaron’s car on television to little avail. My instinct tells me he’s probably out for good this season, but I have just demonstrably proven that I can be very wrong.
- Gordon has been complaining of back pain, so I thought I could give him some advice. Don’t play video games. Seriously. I discovered that when I was playing video games I would lean forward in my chair for extended periods of time, and the next day, wham. Just a thought.
- I unfortunately will have to find a way to record the Darlington race, one of my favorite races of the season. My loving wife managed to pull me away from a race the only way she knows how… with the Christmas gift of tickets to a game at the new Citi Field in Queens. Full review upon request.