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Stewart, SHR hardly panicked after rough start

March 11, 2014, Holly Cain,

Team is concerned after stumbling out of the gate, but know there's a lot of season left

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It’s only three races into the season.

And while Tony Stewart might be a little ticked, his Stewart-Haas Racing team a bit frustrated, it’s way too early for full-blown panic over what’s been mostly a hard knocks start for the organization. 

Of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers, team newcomer Kevin Harvick has a victory at Phoenix and leads the organization in the standings (14th) heading to Bristol, Tenn., this week while the three-time Cup champ Stewart sits well back, 27th in points. The team’s second 2014 addition, Kurt Busch, is ranked 28th and Sprint Cup Series sophomore Danica Patrick is 33rd.

Is the team concerned? Probably. Panicked? No way.

Between Harvick’s success, a new championship format that rewards a single win, and the team’s greatest intangible asset -- the team owner side of Stewart -- things are going to be OK.

For a while in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- the first of 11 visits to 1.5-mile tracks -- Harvick looked like he was going to at least be in position to back up his Phoenix win with another. He led twice for 23 laps in the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevy whose “Freaky Fast” logo has been the ultimate truth in advertising the past two weeks.

But a left front hub problem just before the 200-lap mark sent Harvick to the garage and relegated him to a 41st-place finish, 30 laps down.

After the race, team members from all four SHR teams were huddled together looking over Harvick’s car and then moving on to discuss the troubles Stewart’s famous No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy experienced.

A lot of head shaking and pointing at the cars ended with pats on the back and unmistakable, "We’ll get ‘em next week" looks. It was a full-on team effort and that’s exactly why Stewart, Harvick, Busch and Patrick can have confidence that the early struggles aren’t indicative of future potential.

"We've just got to keep doing what we are doing and everything will be fine with cars like that," said Harvick, who has unquestionably led the way for SHR thus far in 2014.

SHR Vice President for Competition Greg Zipadelli -- crew chief on two of Stewart’s championship seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing -- looked concerned while discussing the day’s outcome with his crew chiefs in the garage.

But he also cautioned about drawing conclusions only three weeks -- and three very different tracks -- into a 36-race schedule.

"It’s disappointing," Zipadelli acknowledged. "We had a really good race car and had a mechanical failure. We need to go home and look at it and make sure we don’t have it happen again obviously. My hat’s off to them. They did a great job, they were hauling the mail for a little bit."

As for the rest of the team? The fact that Harvick’s car is running so well bodes well for everyone.

"We thought we made a lot of gains (in practice), but the track was just so different we certainly didn’t get where we needed to be," Zipadelli said, obviously encouraged by Harvick’s showings but troubled by the other three drivers being so far off pace and unable to do much about it during the race.

Patrick led SHR with a 21st-place finish, while Busch started 23rd and finished 26th, three laps down. Stewart was 33rd and none of them finished on the lead lap.

At one point during the race, Stewart's new crew chief Chad Johnston apologized to the driver saying he felt he had let him down this week. He told the team not to touch anything on the car after the race so they could bring it back and do meticulous analysis of what led to the disappointing day.

Stewart would only say, "Something wasn’t right," after the race.

But it’s these kind of challenging situations where Stewart has previously shown that his ability to motivate his team equals his talent behind the wheel. The people that work for him would go to war for him. And he for them.

Certainly SHR has all the resources -- including Hendrick Motorsports engine support -- that a driver could want. But with Stewart as an owner and driver, there is a passion and commitment he provides unique to any other team in the Sprint Cup Series. That’s what lured perennial championship contender Harvick there and attracted 2004 Cup champ Busch, as well as Patrick.

The questions swirling around about SHR’s slow start bring back memories of Stewart’s first win of 2013 -- at Dover last spring -- when Smoke took the opportunity during his winner’s news conference to reprimand the media who had speculated that his team was in disarray and jobs on the line because he hadn’t won yet.

That afternoon in Dover fresh from his Victory Lane celebration, Stewart was adamant.

"Everybody has to get on board the ship and one guy has to steer the ship and we all have to go in that direction," Stewart said, acknowledging that his role as the owner and the leader of his namesake team is perhaps more important when times are tough, than when basking in the spotlight as he had just minutes earlier.

"My job as a car owner is to go down there and keep the morale of the guys good. Everyone’s frustrated and everybody’s agitated. But it’s for good reasons. They are not just happy just having a job and collecting a paycheck. They want the same thing we want and that’s to be sitting here in the media center at the end of the day talking to you guys about what are we doing to make it better.

"I’ve done this enough and been in the Chase enough that being in the Chase is not a novelty for me. I don’t care about being in the Chase unless I have an opportunity to win the championship.

"To me, it’s a bigger deal to our program turned around to where if we have the opportunity to get in the Chase, our goal is not just to make it, but to be championship contenders."

Stewart went on to reel off top-five finishes in the next two races, including a runner-up in the July race at Daytona. The mini-streak led to his climb up to 11th in the standings before he broke his leg in a sprint car race that August. Before his season was ended, he was looking a very reasonable Chase for the Sprint Cup contender.

Meanwhile, his former SHR teammate Ryan Newman went on to dramatically claim the Brickyard 400 victory -- from pole -- that July and did make the Chase field.

This year Stewart has repeatedly said he fully expects at least three of his four cars to qualify for the Chase. A win any Sunday accomplishes that. Any of them are capable of that -- and Harvick has already punched his ticket into the Chase thanks to his Phoenix victory.

"I know we are all committed to getting better than what we showed today," Busch said on Sunday. "There may be some long days ahead, but I’m confident we’ll get it figured out."


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