ONE: Can Kevin Harvick’s Win Kickstart Stewart-Haas Racing?
There’s no doubt Kevin Harvick’s Sunday victory (July 21) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway lifts a monkey off the back of Stewart-Haas Racing. After eight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories in 2018, a career high, it took Harvick 20 races to win his first. If nothing else, a team he claims has the confidence they’ll win every race they enter won’t actually have to answer that annoying question anymore.
When’s your winless drought going to end?
The bigger question for SHR, though, is whether Harvick’s momentum can trickle down to the rest of the program. Third in the point standings, the 2014 Cup Series champion was always going to crack the postseason grid. Everyone else in this four-team juggernaut is sitting squarely on the playoff bubble. Aric Almirola is safest, 98 points above the cutline, but even he could drop out if luck turns sour. Clint Bowyer (16th) and Daniel Suarez ( tied for 17th) have a much tougher road ahead.
It’s a wretched resume for a team who went four-for-four in making NASCAR’s Round of 8 last season. Since then, Team Penske’s trio of drivers (even a winless Ryan Blaney) have eclipsed SHR’s program. Joey Logano ripped the heavyweight title away last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and they’ve been carrying the Ford banner ever since.
Almirola seemed to flash some speed at NHMS; he won a stage for the first time in 2019. But Almirola has only one top-five finish to his credit this season, tied for the fewest within the current 16-driver playoff grid. The dark horse to get hot within SHR is actually Suarez. It was this two-race stretch last season – Pocono and Watkins Glen — where he put together back-to-back top-five finishes for Joe Gibbs Racing. Eighth at Pocono in June, the No. 41 Ford team could easily put itself in position to match Harvick’s brilliance. And could you imagine what a first career win would do for Suarez both short and long-term?
Not only are racing futures on the line here, but the way in which SHR’s 2019 will be remembered. If they get all four cars in the postseason once again? There’s still a chance to give Penske and Gibbs a run for their money. But if two cars, let’s say, get in while Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske go 10-for-10? (A distinct possibility.) The season will be considered a serious step back.
“I think it’s been a humbling year for all of us,” Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli said after New Hampshire. “I think it’s been a frustrating year, obviously, after the Cinderella year that we had last year, and we honestly didn’t anticipate anything less than that this year. But you know, in sports that’s not always the case.
“We had good cars [at NHMS], and I think we had better speed, but I don’t think anybody should think that we’re where we need to be. We can still make our cars better, and we will make them better and be ready for the end of the year.”
TWO: NASCAR’s Playoff Bubble Picture Clearing Up — Who Has to Win to Get In
A long list of bubble trouble at New Hampshire separated postseason contenders from pretenders. Wrecks for both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon killed whatever chance they had left to make the playoffs on points. In fact, from 19th place Paul Menard on back, the mantra should be simple: “Win or bust.”
That’s because Menard sits 60 points behind Bowyer and the playoff cutline. If anything, that bubble could get tighter if he or someone else in a subset of drivers below him somehow win a race. That list includes Stenhouse (20th), Chris Buescher (21st), Dillon (22nd) and even a surging Matt DiBenedetto (24th). Yep, that’s right; how could you not consider Matty D. for an upset? He was top five at the road course in Sonoma last month and has an outstanding Bristol track record in underdog equipment.
But assuming none of those guys can break through, the bubble now becomes a battle between nine drivers for seven spots on the grid. Almirola leads the way, 98 points above the cutline; he and Blaney (+84) are a race or so from declaring themselves safe. The other seven, in order, are in a dogfight: William Byron (+61), Kyle Larson (+31), Erik Jones (+28), Ryan Newman (+21), Bowyer (+17), Johnson (-17) and Suarez (-17).
Byron, despite a big lead, remains vulnerable due to Hendrick Motorsports’ inconsistency. (See: two mechanical issues in the New Hampshire race alone.) At the same time, you can’t count out his teammate, Johnson, when the guy has seven Cup championships. And Suarez, as pointed out above, could easily win at the next two tracks on the circuit.
So while the list is a little smaller than it was last week, the playoff picture is the most unsettled it’s been in years. Consider where we were at this point in 2018. Three drivers (Bowman, Stenhouse and Menard) were fighting for just one spot on the grid; everyone else was in solid shape or “win to get in” mode.
So strap on your belts and get ready. The last six races could be a wild ride of strategy, aggression and action as drivers fight for a postseason spot.
THREE: Freshmen Disappearing Act
Ryan Preece is no rookie at New Hampshire. In fact, he has well over a decade’s worth of experience, posting two dozen career starts during his time in NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Series. Sunday should have been a race to flex his muscles.
Instead, Preece fell flat. On a day where teammate Buescher continued to impress, running inside the top five at times, Preece was invisible and finished a disappointing 21st. 20 races into the year, this Cup Series rookie has yet to score a top-15 finish at any track outside of the sport’s superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega.
But he’s not alone in freshman futility. Matt Tifft is also without a top-15 effort outside of superspeedways (he was ninth in that weird Daytona ending). At least Daniel Hemric has a few top-15 performances, including a 12th at Michigan International Speedway. But he, too, has failed to crack the top 10 for Richard Childress Racing outside of a fifth at Talladega early this year. Hemric was snakebit at New Hampshire, wrecked by Suarez, who slid in oil and wound up dead last.
Add in Cody Ware, who came and went in this rookie chase, and we’re on pace for another disappointing crop of rookie performances. It’s fair to say Byron wasn’t much better in 2018; his average finish of 22.1 was just a tick better than the 22.2 Hemric’s put up through 20 starts. Heck, Justin Haley’s Daytona miracle victory, crazy as it was, makes all of them look silly.
So when will this recent spell of first-year follies end? The last actual ROTY candidate to win was Joey Logano back in 2009. I do think 2020 should give us a banner crop with Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick all potentially moving up to Cup.
But as for the 2019 Sunoco Rookie of the Year race? Next year can’t come soon enough.
FOUR: The Blessing and Curse of New Hampshire’s Heat
This edition of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 may have been the best New Hampshire race we’ve seen in the past decade. A much-maligned flat track where passing has been difficult to impossible, NHMS seemed to benefit from the heat wave gripping the eastern part of the country. Slick conditions led to several drivers (Kyle Busch included) losing control, creating an air of unpredictability. Different pit strategies continually jumbled the field while oppressive conditions seemed to cause a rare bout of mechanical problems.
Sure, passing overall was down year-to-year according to NASCAR loop data statistics. But sometimes those stats don’t tell the whole story. NHMS passed the eye test and included a frenetic, fender-banging last-lap battle for the win. One of those two drivers, Denny Hamlin, climbed all the way from the rear of the field in a backup car. So it’s clear at least some drivers could pass, right?
It’s a major step forward for a track some believe might be on the chopping block for NASCAR schedule-makers come 2021. But the surprise success of the race came at a cost: fans coming through the turnstiles. Would you want to subject yourself to 90+ degree heat and a 3 p.m. ET start time (meaning multiple hours in the hot sun) when you could watch at home for free? Predictably, attendance at the track didn’t look great.
Unfortunately, that financial bottom line may make the difference in another year or so, even though NASCAR wants to keep a presence inside the northeast. So NHMS faithful, get your ducks in a row for 2020. Hopefully, what you saw Sunday was enough to give your track one more in-person appearance.
FIVE: The Power and Influence of Nick Harrison
Finally this week, NASCAR nation remains in mourning over the death of NASCAR Xfinity Series crew chief Nick Harrison at age 37. As tributes have been pouring in the last two days about Harrison, it’s important to note how influential his presence was to so many stock car careers despite never winning in the Cup Series as a crew chief (120 starts).
Two examples stand out. First, his presence and support was crucial in the rehabilitation of Kurt Busch. Harrison crew chiefed Busch in 2012, the year after he was kicked off Roger Penske’s team following a season of bizarre and often inappropriate behavior. Together, they won an Xfinity Series race in Daytona that July and put Busch in position to contend in several Cup events despite underdog equipment. It was enough to convince Furniture Row Racing team owner Barney Visser to take a chance on Busch and potentially save his career long-term.
Then, Harrison moved to Richard Childress Racing, winning four more times with Austin Dillon and Paul Menard in Xfinity. As the Dillon boys struggled with their transition to Cup, Harrison was always there with a pick-me-up in the form of a top-tier Xfinity ride. His positive attitude and leadership helped both men develop as racers while keeping them competitive when they did dip back down to the sport’s lower levels.
The fact no one has had a negative word to say about Harrison thus far tells you the type of impact he had inside the NASCAR garage. Sure, he may have never gotten that golden Cup opportunity on top of the pit box. But the legacy and influence Harrison had on many drivers will last for years to come.