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Stewart-Haas Racing: Chase's ultimate boom or bust

June 11, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Drivers Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick

Three drivers could be in contention for title ... or get bounced in first round

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Tony Stewart's performance on the race track historically heats up when the weather does, and this past weekend appeared to be no exception. On a warm afternoon at Pocono Raceway, the three-time champion of NASCAR's premier series drove immediately into the top five and led 24 laps around the big triangle in the northeast Pennsylvania mountains.

He wasn't alone. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick had another weekend with another strong car, and maintained a solid position inside the top five. And SHR driver Kurt Busch continued his post-double rebound, thriving in perhaps the best vehicle he's had since his victory at Martinsville way back in March, lurking just behind the leaders despite a transmission that kept jumping out of fourth gear every time he motored through Turn 2.

At one point near the halfway point of the race, Stewart-Haas cars were running 1-2-3 on a Pocono track that -- despite its quirky nature -- is a beast of a layout which tests everything from horsepower to driver aptitude to strategy. It was an event capable of convincing anyone that SHR's top trio of drivers could indeed emerge as the three-headed threat for the championship that so many believe they can be. But in the end, it was also another event that left you wondering how any of them could possibly string together the 10 races necessary to win it.

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The truth probably lies somewhere in between those polar opposites, but the feast-or-famine nature of the most enigmatic team in NASCAR lends itself to such extremes. Right now, though, it's difficult to tell which SHR is the real one. Is it the one producing vastly improved cars, and home of arguably the strongest program currently in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Harvick's No. 4? Or is it the one continually dogged by issues that derail good days, and making trying ones go from bad to worse?

"I feel like our team has done a good job and they've built really good cars, everybody at the shop," SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said after the Pocono race. "We've just got to figure out how to close the deal."

There are reasons to believe they'll have a strong Chase showing, despite the reality of a four-car team whose highest-ranked driver stands 12th in points. While the offseason driver moves attracted all the attention, the addition of crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Chad Johnston has resulted in consistently better cars for an organization that was behind on Generation-6 development for much of last season. Harvick's program set the bar during a test last December at Charlotte, and has shown more week-to-week speed than any other group since. Danica Patrick's flashes in qualifying at Charlotte and in the race at Kansas offer further evidence of a foundation strong enough to keep SHR in contention, despite all the things that keep going wrong.

And goodness, do things keep going wrong. A promising group effort Sunday at Pocono evaporated after Stewart sped on pit road and Harvick suffered rapid air loss in his left-front tire in the area around the electronic identification chip, which, according to Goodyear, was the same issue that sent Patrick into the Turn 3 wall. And there were also concerns about Busch, whose pit crew had a kit out ready to fix his slipping transmission if needed, but the 2004 champion still managed to hold it together and record his best finish in three months.

"For my team as young as we are, this is the type of finish that will help boost the confidence up," Busch said afterward. "And the meeting we had last week, we all had to look at one another and say, 'Are you willing to step this up? Are you willing to put in the extra hours? Are you willing to go the extra mile to make this happen?' And everybody said yes, and when you cash in on a top‑five run after that, that really builds everybody's self‑esteem."

Having speed in the car means a lot. It's a life raft drivers can cling to when other things are going wrong -- ask Jeff Gordon, who did just that through a tumultuous 2012 campaign full of crashes and breakdowns, and still made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup because his cars were ultimately fast enough to capitalize when the dam of misery finally broke. The drivers who truly fret are those playing catch-up as far as speed, a deficiency that can't always be remedied easily or in short order. For all they've been through, SHR's drivers can lean on the fact that their cars are fast. Like Gordon two years ago, that means they could be dangerous later in the season should the plagues of boils and locusts ever come to an end.

In the meantime, they continue to walk a fine line, their struggles appearing more glaring when compared to those of their primary competition. Jimmie Johnson casts a long shadow over the garage area, and not just because he's won six championships. It's because of races like Pocono, where he can qualify poorly, get the front end of his car bent up in a pit-road collision with Marcos Ambrose, hit the rev chip shifting gears on a late restart, and still find a way to finish sixth. The No. 48 team has always managed crises better than anyone, and Johnson is so good in part because his low points aren't as low as those of everybody else. In an elimination-format Chase where one catastrophic problem can end title hopes, that degree of stability looms large.

SHR is trying to get there, and has 12 races remaining in which to do it. Make no mistake, the top three drivers at Stewart-Haas comprise an A-list lineup very capable of deciding the championship among themselves, particularly given how strong their cars have been since Childers and Johnston arrived. Still, repeated quality-control issues and mistakes on race day can be a drain not just on performance, but on morale. These seasons can have a way of taking hold and never letting go -- for every Gordon in 2012, there's a Brad Keselowski in 2013, who always seemed on the verge of turning the corner until finally the Chase arrived and the defending champion wasn't in it.

That type of worst-case scenario seems quite unlikely for the lead trio at SHR, given that Harvick and Busch have race victories and Stewart is certainly running well enough to earn a place in the expanded 16-driver field. And yet, for no team does the threat of early postseason elimination look more likely. Harvick in particular has shown every sign of being in the title race right down to Homestead -- along with indications that he could get bounced in the opening round.

"I try not to think about it too much, because it gets frustrating and because I really don't think there's an answer to it," Zipadelli said of the issues plaguing the No. 4 car.

It's that kind of season at SHR. One program shows the potential to distance itself from everyone else in the series, yet leaves the competition director scratching his head. Four fast cars go to Pocono, and only one of them ends up in the top 10. And three drivers appear bound for the postseason, where they will all face the ultimate game of boom or bust.

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