With the news Tuesday that Stewart-Haas Racing has elected to swap the pit crews of Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, it confirmed two things: a squeaky wheel gets you grease, and SHR is serious about capturing its second championship in four seasons.
Some traditionalists might balk at the notion, as this move occurs on the eve of the first race of the new elimination-format. They’ll adhere to the “dance with the one who brought you” way of thinking. But with the No. 4 team having experienced multiple foul-ups on pit road this season, that philosophy does not appear to be on the table. From the second race of the season at Phoenix, the No. 4 Rodney Childers-prepared SHR Chevrolet has been the class of the field in virtually every race, save for restrictor plate tracks and road courses. A couple of mechanical failures are to be expected, for sure, but it has been the crew that’s repeatedly shot themselves in the foot this season and cost themselves four wins – at least. The team has shown progress as the year has worn on, and Atlanta they were likely outdone by equipment, as evidenced by the high 11-second pit stops of the No. 11 team – and a noticeably higher pitch to their air guns.
With the elimination style format, the lowest four points finishers are eliminated following the third race at Dover. While it’s unlikely a poor pit stop would sink him to 13th in points or worse, however if a driver wins a race, they automatically advance into the next round. With as many wins as the pit crew has left on the table this year, it is a very real possibility that a sure win could slip away. While it may not be as urgent in the first elimination format of the Challenger Round, it’s the Contender round where it’s of greater importance. That trio of races has Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega on the docket; Harvick was runner up by a car length at Kansas and finished second to Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte, leading 100 laps to Johnson’s 164. Each of those races is easily winnable for the No. 4 team, which would make the trip to Talladega a lot less harrowing given the duplicitous nature of The Big one.
This isn’t exactly an unprecedented move. Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick made the same call to swap crews mid-Chase in 2010 with the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon, after the No. 48 team had lost positions on virtually every stop. Once Jeff Gordon has crashed during the race, the call was made to switch the teams for the rest of the race – and the season. The result? Johnson won has fifth of six championships, albeit largely on a fuel mileage meltdown by the No. 11 team of Denny Hamlin at Phoenix. Many are quick to say this is a performance-based business when it comes to drivers, but pit crews are no exception either. It has not been uncommon to see a crew member wearing the uniform of a fellow team car mixed in on a pit stop if there’s been a continued issue during a race. Even the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team swapped out a rear tire carrier and jack man starting this weekend to help improve their chances of advancing to the next round.
Sometimes pitchers get pulled, sometimes quarterbacks get benched. Its sports, things happen.
Stewart-Haas Racing has made headlines the last few months for all the wrong reasons – be it the continued struggles of the No. 4 team on pit road, their driver calling them out for it to no avail, and of course the tragic accident involving Tony Stewart at a sprint car race in New York last month. This team desperately needs something good to happen for themselves and for their sponsors – and fast. With Stewart’s investigation on-going there has been a black cloud hanging over the team since he broke his leg last August and missed the Chase. He is out of the picture again this season and obviously has bigger things on his plate right now than racing. Why not make the change to help lift the organization and bring home a championship? After all they do tend to pay pretty well, and given the article that a few months ago that detailed the expense to SHR over the course of a race weekend – and should any sponsors exit due to the negative press that has resulted from last month’s accident – a little extra in the coffers might be needed; prize money is still used in part to help fund teams and pay the people that work there.
Is the move that much of a surprise? Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier, especially after the race at Kentucky. Yes Harvick is historically hard on his team; to the point where RCR crew chief Gil Martin decided he didn’t want to do deal with it any more a couple of years ago when the duo were paired win the old No. 29 (now No. 3) car. Eventually he returned, but the berating and constant criticism of the team and cars continued until his departure at the end of 2013. Sure the driver makes mistakes too, and I always wondered if the team would ever take him to task should he flub a restart, speed on pit road, or wall it. This year however has been doubly frustrating given the consistent speed of the cars, and the pit stop blunders coming at precisely the wrong time – every time. This Sunday in Chicagoland with the Chase underway there are no longer any room for excuses or second chances, and from a competition perspective is one that needed to be made. Stewart’s crew rallied to win a championship on a tie breaker (wins) for 2011, including a heroic pit road patch job on the nose of Stewart’s machine that allowed him to win the race, and the title over Carl Edwards.
Will the move prove successful? The results should be evident quite quickly if it was the right move or not. However if the stand-in team doesn’t perform any better, or the driver makes a mental mistake, you can be rest assured most of the media, the competition – and Tony Stewart’s new crew – won’t let him hear the end of it.