Stewart-Haas Racing can’t be dismissed as Kevin Harvick and some other guys, and is now unquestionably the best NASCAR Cup Series team from top to bottom.
Stewart-Haas Racing was already having a great start to its 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season even before the rare Monday race at Martinsville Speedway. That happens when one of your drivers wins three of the year’s first five races. Something different and significant happened at the STP 500, as Gene Haas and Tony Stewart got to celebrate yet another win, but this time from Clint Bowyer, a driver who hadn’t been to Victory Lane for 190 races.
Seeing Bowyer with the traditional grandfather clock led to an inescapable but clear conclusion: Right this second, Stewart-Haas Racing is the best team in NASCAR, its success no longer tied to Harvick alone. Its cars are threats to win now every week at every type of track, the only team that can truly say that.
Momentum changes quickly enough in the NASCAR Cup Series that this realization isn’t a shock., but it’s still a bit startling what SHR has been through to get to this point. The team is only in its second season after switching from Chevrolet to Ford, an adjustment that has gone astonishingly well considering that was the manufacturer that was supposed to be at a disadvantage this year.
It’s also had driver turnover, jettisoning Danica Patrick from the No. 10 (and very nearly saying goodbye to Kurt Busch as well). That, too, has worked out swimmingly, with Aric Almirola running better than Patrick ever did.
But the real proof of how the team is firing on all cylinders came in the STP 500, when Harvick had a good but not race-winning car (and still finished in the top 5). There was Bowyer, able to run down and pass the Ford of Ryan Blaney, which dominated Stage 2, with little trouble. Kyle Busch, an ace at Martinsville could never quite catch up as the laps wound down, settling for yet another frustrating runner-up finish.
While Bowyer was expected to perform better after Stewart-Haas Racing saved him from an agonizing year in limbo for HScott Motorsports, he only knocked on the door in 2017 with a trio of second-place finishes and a third at Martinsville in the fall. On Monday, he kicked that door in, bringing not only personal relief but a sense of team accomplishment that Harvick alone was never going to be able to bring.
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There are months of racing ahead, but it’s now difficult to point to any type of track and think that SHR won’t have someone contending for a win. Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 last year, Almirola nearly took the checkered flag this year, and any team with good cars still running at the end can prevail in restrictor plate races. Harvick already showed his stuff on mile (Phoenix) and mile and a half tracks (Atlanta and Las Vegas), and Bowyer just finished first in the lone short track race so far.
What’s left? California and its 2-mile circuit was the only race where no Stewart-Haas cars finished in the top 10, though Harvick looked pretty fast until he got tangled up with Kyle Larson and crashed out. Road courses? There aren’t enough of those to make a difference, and Harvick just won at Sonoma last year.
On top of that, no other team can make a legitimate claim to be the same kind of threat. Kyle Busch has been the best driver yet to win, and Denny Hamlin has been plenty fast, but their younger Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are below Kurt Busch and Almirola in the standings. Team Penske’s three cars are 3-4-5 in points but have combined for zero wins. Hendrick Motorsports is struggling, and Martin Truex Jr. is an army of one who still has short tracks as something of an Achilles heel.
The good news for everyone else is that NASCAR isn’t contested as a team sport, and there’s no guarantee that even one of the SHR drivers will make the Championship 4 or take the title — though Harvick has already helped himself out quite a bit to that end. But we’ve been wondering who else might join Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch as true championship contenders. With all due respect to Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 triumph, Bowyer just became the first driver to truly throw down the gauntlet and say, “Why not me?”
With 20 races and months to go before the regular season is over, there are plenty of opportunities for other teams to catch up. It just looks like now more than ever, those are also chances for Stewart-Haas Racing to add to its resume as the top organization in the sport, and that’s not something anyone would have presumed even a month ago.