On a cloudy afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing came up empty handed when the checkered flag flew. But those clouds were not without a silver lining for the four-car organization.
Just over one week ago, Kurt Busch and the No. 41 team were in the spotlight, with the 2004 series champion won the Daytona 500 thanks to a last-lap pass. The victory made up for the misfortune that the team’s other three drivers experienced on that day.
Harvick in particular was strong at Daytona, winning the second stage and leading 50 laps. He was even more dominant at Atlanta, winning both the first and second stages, leading 292 laps. Then, on the final pit stop of the day, Harvick got busted for speeding while exiting the pits. He would race the No. 4 car all the way back to ninth in the closing laps, but it was too little too late to challenge eventual winner Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson at the front of the field.
The frustrating finish is a sign that the No. 4 team is still trying to address its biggest weakness, closing races. Atlanta has been tough on Harvick.
Last year, he led 131 laps in this race, but fell too far behind Jimmie Johnson after the No. 48 team short-pitted and took advantage of fresher tires.
Harvick’s loss at Atlanta in 2014 was even worse. After leading 195 laps, he got tangled up with multiple drivers during an overtime restart. Despite having the best car, Harvick was relegated to 19th that day.
There is a positive side to the fact that Harvick is dealing with the same old problems.
SHR implemented its highly-anticipated switch to Ford during the off-season. The team’s partnership with Chevy and technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports was responsible for two championships in eight years, one by Harvick and one by team co-owner Tony Stewart.
Switching to Ford, however, demanded a new approach. SHR had to start building its own chassis and utilizing Roush-Yates engines. The one-time Hendrick satellite organization was all grown up, and naturally, many fans were wondering if the team could make it on its own.
If Harvick is still experiencing the same old problems, then there is obviously still additional work to be done. Yet it is significant that Harvick does not seem have any new problems as a result of the manufacturer switch. Since Harvick joined forces with SHR and crew chief Rodney Childers in 2014, the No. 4 team’s greatest strength has been its intermediate track speed. On Sunday in Atlanta, Harvick had speed by the bucketful. Time and time again, he would cruise away from the field as if he was on a proverbial Sunday drive.
Atlanta could have represented a lot of intermediate track races in NASCAR over the last three years, where Harvick put on a display of dominance.
Fans know that just about everything equipment-wise has changed at Stewart-Haas Racing. Yet as far as Harvick is concerned, he is still freaky fast as surely as that phrase is emblazoned on his Jimmy John’s car.
For the No. 4 team, it looks like nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, the other SHR drivers do not appear to be hampered by the switch to Ford either. If anything, all three have shown signs of improvement in 2017. Busch got off to a good, consistent start last year and scored a victory at Pocono Raceway. However, last year’s post-season was a different story.
Busch did make it to the third round, but the No. 41 team seemed to be outgunned down the stretch. A victory at Daytona no doubt erased any lingering disappointment from last year, but his seventh-place result at Atlanta provides further evidence that the No. 41 team is back on the upswing.
The prospects of Patrick and Bowyer are harder to predict. Both of them slogged through miserable 2016 seasons, Bowyer with HScott Motorsports. The two of them have also had an up and down start to the season.
Patrick wound up 17th at Atlanta after a pretty quiet day. In 2016, she recorded only five finishes better than that. It remains too early to say how this season will go for Patrick, but a fast Daytona car and a trouble-free Atlanta race suggest that the No. 10 team has not lost a step from last year.
Finally, Bowyer’s run at Atlanta is more indicative that better days are on the horizon for him than his Daytona performance. The Kansas native has always been strong on superspeedways, but Atlanta has been a struggle for him. He has no top fives there and has not had a top 10 since 2010. Yet Bowyer’s 11th place finish got him close on Sunday, especially since he ran in the top five early and had to rebound from a late race incident. Bowyer is in the best equipment he has had in years, and he looks ready to take advantage of it.
Stewart-Haas Racing has proven that it can perform well immediately after big changes. When Harvick won the premier series championship in 2014, he was the first driver to win the title in his first year with a team since Darrell Waltrip with Junior Johnson in 1981.
Even in in 2009, when Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing and joined forces with Gene Haas, SHR exceeded expectations in its first year. Stewart earned the team’s first win at Pocono, only 14 races into the year. He would go on to win three more times and even led the points standings for 13 consecutive weeks, not relinquishing the lead until the postseason began.
There is a lot of racing left in the 2017 season, but SHR looks strong out of the gate. Busch’s Daytona 500 victory could very well be the highlight of the team’s season. However, the strength that SHR showed at Atlanta is a better indicator of how the organization’s first season with Ford will go. At the moment, even in defeat, there should be a lot of optimism among Smoke’s people. Even with new cars, new equipment, new engines, and new personnel, it is still the same old Stewart-Haas Racing.