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(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: It’s Been a Stewart Haas Racing Year So Far

Who’s in the headline 

The first six weeks of the season are in the books and the headlines have been predominantly filled with one organization: Stewart Haas Racing. If it weren’t for a crash one-third of a lap from the finish line of the Daytona 500, the organization would have won five of the first six races of the season. Kevin Harvick has been the highlight of the SHR onslaught with three consecutive wins in the middle of the first six races. Clint Bowyer broke a 190-race losing streak to be the second SHR driver to visit Victory Lane this season. Austin Dillon scored the biggest win of his career in the Daytona 500 and Martin Truex Jr. notched a triumph for Toyota. Kyle Busch has been the best of the rest wrangling the point lead as the series took its first vacation of the year.

What happened

The season kicked off with a competitive Daytona 500 that looked like it might be won in a surprising fashion with Aric Almirola taking the lead on a late race restart and heading into turn three on the white flag lap. Dillon had a huge run down the back straight, got to Almirola’s bumper and tried to make a move. Almirola blocked the run, Dillon countered, Almirola blocked again and the end result was Almirola nosing into the wall and Dillon heading to victory.

From there, Harvick put his stamp on the start of the year with two dominating wins at Atlanta and Las Vegas, followed by a third consecutive win at Phoenix. The series headed to California and Harvick was trying for four straight, but it fell apart quickly when he made a bad move racing Kyle Larson and tore up his race car. He was running at the finish, but well off of the lead lap. Truex ran away and hid over the last half of the race to get his first victory of his championship defense season.

The final race of the first six was a surprise for many, as Bowyer ran in the top five for the entire race at Martinsville and ultimately led 215 of the final 216 laps to return to Victory Lane and grab the first grandfather clock of his career.

Why you should care

Throughout the off-season, all anyone heard was that Fords were going to suck out loud for the entire year. The manufacturer had run well at plate tracks for the last two seasons so Daytona was a wild card. Once the cars unloaded at Atlanta, people expected Harvick to be a force so it still wasn’t too much of a surprise. Once the series headed west however, the continued dominance of the SHR Fords was a surprise. The struggles of the Chevrolet teams was a bit more of a surprise considering how much time the Chevy organizations spent in the off-season preparing for the new Camaro ZL1.

Hendrick Motorsports was out to lunch for much of the end of last season, and they have picked up right where they left off. Of the four cars under the HMS umbrella, Alex Bowman is the only one eligible for the playoffs right now based on points. The top organization in the sport is struggling, and has also lost longtime sponsor Lowe’s for next year already. It is early in the year but there are definitely concerns in the bowtie camp when HMS struggles.

In the grand scheme of things, Fords are strong, Toyotas are still contending week-in and week-out while the Chevrolets are getting used to a new body style. At this pace, things should be right on pace for a truly competitive second half of the season and playoffs where most anyone can win.

What your friends are talking about

One of the biggest stories of the year has been the NASCAR issued pit guns. They came out of the box with serious issues at Atlanta and Las Vegas. They have continued to have some issues, including a gun breaking in half during a truck pit stop at Martinsville. Paoli, the gun supplier is working through issues and it will most likely be a non-issue for the second half of the year, but it has been a black-eye for the sanctioning body so far this season.

The BK Racing team filed for bankruptcy and is seeking protection to keep operating. The result is quite a bit of information is coming out about how the charter system is working for teams. In the end, that information could make the bargaining chips difficult when organizations attempt to sell their charters. It could also result in a new team entering the sport if the charter for BK goes up for sale. As part of the filing, the bankruptcy judge appointed Matthew Smith of the Finley Group as trustee to oversee the operations of the race team while the process continues.

In the racing equivalent of a vote of confidence, SHR stated this week that it fully expects Kurt Busch to return for 2019. There have been rumors that Cole Custer would potentially be moving into the No. 41 next season but the organization is doing their best to quash those rumors in the bud.

Darlington Raceway is upgrading its seats before the Southern 500. The result is a large inventory of the old school race seats that have been in the stands at the first superspeedway in the sport for years. Thanks to the upgrade, fans have an opportunity to purchase those old seats and some of the proceeds will go to South Carolina Future Minds, a 501(c)3 organization that helps public schools in the state.

It is looking like Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series merchandise is not headed to the same collectible pantheon of XFL merch just yet. The title sponsor of the series is eight months away from the end of the race season and NASCAR has been pushing for a commitment to extend its deal beyond this race season. Nothing has been announced yet but it does appear that the scales are tilting in favor of Monster returning.

Fan voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame has begun. The fan portion of voting accounts for one vote in the process of selecting the 2019 inductee class. The top five vote-getters in the fan process will receive the designated fan votes. There is no write-in option so only the 20 nominees are eligible for votes. Fans can vote at https://www.nascar.com/halloffame

Who is mad

Hendrick Motorsports struggles include seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team was not strong during the playoffs last year and has been a mid-pack team for most of the 2018 year. With people beginning to question the ability of the now 42-year-old future Hall of Famer, and the typical difficulties between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, the rumors are flying about what will come next. If history repeats itself, Johnson will right the ship and make a run over the second half of the year. If it doesn’t, there is a legitimate chance Johnson seriously contemplates retirement at the end of 2018.

Who is happy

With the Ford camp being so strong this early in the year, any one of the blue oval drivers could be in the happy category. The one who is grinning the most besides Harvick these days is Ryan Blaney. Blaney has been flirting with victories for much of the start of the year and it won’t be a surprise if he scores a win soon. The Ford strength is prevalent throughout the series and Blaney is looking as strong as anyone under the Team Penske banner.

When the checkered flag flew

This season has four unique winners. There are 20 races left until the playoff cutoff. If there are 13 unique winners in those 20 races, a driver will not make the playoffs with a victory. Any fewer than that and all race winners will be in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch leads the points by eight over Martin Truex Jr.

For the year William Byron has four Rookie of the Race awards and Darrell Wallace Jr. has won it twice.

Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer are the four race winners in 2018. Assuming there are 16 or fewer unique winners in the regular season, they will be locked into the playoffs based on winning a race. Harvick is locked into the playoffs thanks to two victories, assuming he attempts the remaining races in the regular season.The remaining drivers who would qualify for the playoffs and their associated playoff points:

1) Kyle Busch – 1

3) Ryan Blaney – 2

4) Joey Logano – 0

5) Brad Keselowski – 1

6) Denny Hamlin – 1

9) Kyle Larson – 0

10) Kurt Busch – 2

11) Aric Almirola – 0

12) Erik Jones – 0

14) Alex Bowman – 0

15) Paul Menard – 0

16) Ryan Newman – 0

What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)

The start of the year has been less than spectacular. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer all dominated their race wins. The Daytona 500 had a thrilling, albeit controversial, finish. In the end, the year has been underwhelming but shows a lot of potential. For now, it gets three cold Busch Beers, the official pole sponsor of NASCAR.

Where do you point your DVR for next week

The series heads to Texas to start a run of 10 consecutive races. The action from Texas Motor Speedway can see seen on FOX Sports 1 starting at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 8. It can also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app. If you want to hear the race you can catch it on your local PRN affiliate, www.goprn.com or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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2 comments

  1. They have found the secret of the secret sauce. For Christ sakes even Clint Bowyer won one. LOL. That pretty bad…but good for SHR. Team Penske got beat by Bowyer, how embarrassing. BAAHAHAA. Step it up PENSKE!

  2. Gotta give credit where its due. Their engineers have done a heck of a job.