Did You Notice? … How quickly Stewart-Haas Racing has gotten its act together this summer? While Kevin Harvick has been a title contender all season long in the NASCAR Cup Series, his trio of teammates spent the first half of 2020 mired in midpack.
Here’s where all four drivers stood through the Martinsville Speedway race June 10.
Harvick: Points leader, two wins, no finish worse than 15th in 11 races
Clint Bowyer: Winless, 12th in points, only two top-five finishes
Aric Almirola: Winless, 14th in points, no top-five finishes, 25 laps led
Cole Custer: Winless, 26th in points, one top-10 finish, two top-15 finishes, zero laps led
Like in past years at SHR, it appeared Harvick’s championship-caliber success wouldn’t trickle down and boost up the other programs. Almirola appeared on the playoff bubble, Custer was a struggling rookie and Team Penske was head-and-shoulders above all as the top Ford program.
Boy, what a difference a month can make.
This four-car program now heads into the Bristol Motor Speedway All-Star Race as the sport’s hottest team. Harvick has won two of the past four races, including his second straight Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But his teammates have been just as impressive. Almirola put together a career-best streak of five straight top-five performances, with unexpected speed that left him surging to ninth in points. He then led 128 laps at Kentucky Speedway, dominating the early going before falling back to eighth. He’s led more laps in the last six races (193) than in any season during his Cup career to date.
Custer has been even more impressive. In the course of the last two weeks alone, he’s posted the first top-five finishes of his Cup career. That includes Sunday’s (July 12) shocking Kentucky victory in which he pounced on the final restart to blow by veterans Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., among others. The five laps Custer led in that race were the first of his career on the Cup level.
It’s a finish worth watching one more time, easily the best we’ve seen on a 1.5-mile oval this season.
Take a second look at who else Custer passed on this restart: two of Team Penske’s best in Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. It’s part of a role reversal, as the Penske group has won just once (Blaney, Talladega Superspeedway) during this six-race stretch.
In fact, during SHR’s sizzling summer, the Penske trio has just three top-five finishes. Joey Logano, in particular, has gone ice cold with no result better than 10th. Suddenly, SHR and Penske are tied at five victories apiece this season, making Ford’s fastest team an election too close to call.
And that’s just what’s happened in the Cup Series. Chase Briscoe has put together three wins in his last six races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. That included a slam-banging, aggressive battle to the finish that earned him the inaugural NXS road course victory at Indianapolis. He’s jumped into the point lead and is the top championship contender, well on his way to an eight-race prediction he felt was needed to jump to the Cup Series come 2021. (Hat tip to Greg Zipadelli, who moonlighted as the No. 98 crew chief and visited victory lane while crew chief Richard Boswell was suspended after a ballast violation.)
Even co-owner Tony Stewart has found his way into the national spotlight. He’s joined with former championship crew chief Ray Evernham to produce a new, all-star racing division, the Superstar Racing Experience. SRX came out with a bang this week, announcing a six-race partnership that gives CBS its largest racing property since 2000. The network that broadcast NASCAR’s Daytona 500 for two decades will now market the league, looking to debut at major short tracks around the country in Saturday primetime during the summer of 2021. SRX’s Twitter has over 10,400 followers in just 48 hours for a league that has no drivers and a schedule that’s 12 months away.
That’s one heck of a six-week stretch for an organization. Suddenly, SHR is neck-and-neck for the best NASCAR team this season across the board, an idea that seemed preposterous before the summertime hit.
But there are two people, in particular, who could lose out here as this team gets its act together. The first is Clint Bowyer, who remains a distant 14th in points without any of the momentum generated by the rest of the program. Winless for over two years, since June 2018 at Michigan International Speedway, Bowyer didn’t lead a single lap or score a top-five finish while his teammates were busy winning races.
That’s not ideal when you’re in the last year of a contract at age 41. More than ever, Bowyer’s future appears to be in NASCAR television unless there’s a late summer miracle that resurrects the No. 14.
Another driver wondering about SHR’s hot streak is Kyle Larson. Remember him? Robin Miller stirred the pot last month by reporting Tony Stewart would be interested in hiring Larson down the road. (That’s no surprise; SHR is a team, after all, that picked up Kurt Busch post-rehabilitation, 2+ years after his firing from Penske).
Problem is, to pick up Larson, you need to find a place to put him. Custer? No chance due to family connections (father Joe is SHR team president). Harvick isn’t going anywhere, and Bowyer’s seat, should he get a pink slip, seems predestined for Briscoe. How could they deny the guy if he wins a NXS title?
Maybe Almirola would be at risk? Six weeks ago, the answer was yes. But now, the No. 10 team appears to be on the verge of winning and is a playoff lock. The driver also has a pretty cozy relationship with sponsor Smithfield, an organization unlikely to partner with Larson so soon after his racial slur that cost him a NASCAR career.
Could Stewart be forced to wait another year on Larson? SRX would be another way to showcase him in 2021 while the driver rehabilitates his career on dirt. Maybe then, Almirola’s seat would be closer to coming available and the move makes more sense? It’ll be intriguing to see how it all works out.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Only seven teams make up the 16 cars guaranteed a spot in this year’s All-Star Race. 10 of them come from just three organizations: Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske. And one comes from Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports, the surprise rain-delay winners at Daytona International Speedway last July. The NASCAR Cup Series continues to have parity among its top contenders … and then a huge chasm between those teams and the rest of the pack.
- I’ve been more impressed with Michael McDowell these past few weeks than at any point during his Cup career. He’s earning top-10 finishes at tracks (Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway) Front Row Motorsports has never been competitive at in their 15-year existence. He almost earned the team’s first intermediate top-10 result ever at a cookie-cutter 1.5-mile oval before fading in the closing laps at Kentucky. Don’t sleep on him to transfer into the All-Star Race outright at Bristol.
- Bubba Wallace earning five races of sponsorship from the Cash App is a nice injection of cash into the No. 43 Chevrolet. It might be too little, too late though when it comes to his faint postseason hopes. 84 points out from Jimmie Johnson with nine races left seems too big a hurdle to overcome without a win. It feels like only a trio of drivers can catch Johnson at this point (or another bubble driver who falters): Austin Dillon (-24 from 16th), Tyler Reddick (-41) or Erik Jones (-42).