Stewart-Haas Racing Is Ready For The NASCAR Playoffs Following Darlingtonby Carter Buffkin September 3, 2018 0 comments
DARLINGTON, S.C. – With 10 wins through 25 races, Stewart-Haas Racing is enjoying a dream season many teams could actually only dream about.
On top of being responsible for seven wins with Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Ford team, the Kannapolis, North Carolina based organization has been responsible for a career resurgence of Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford with two wins, and Kurt Busch recently took his first checkers of the season two races ago at Bristol Motor Speedway. Even the No. 10 Ford that has historically under-performed, has provided a career-best season for Aric Almirola.
Following Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, all four teams are locked into the NASCAR Playoffs, with three teams in on wins, and the fourth team locked in on points. So what led to this outstanding run for the Kannapolis-based team? Stewart-Haas Racing Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli says it stems from the team’s disappointment in their first season after transitioning from Chevrolet to Ford prior to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
“Honestly, when you look at the performance this year by all of the cars, it’s kind of a dream season, you know,” Zipadelli said. “We weren’t happy when we switched over as far as where we ended up with the wins, and the total performance of Stewart-Haas last year. So we made a few changes in the offseason, moved some people around, just redelegated some work and different things of the different groups. It just seems like it has helped us from a performance standpoint.”
When Almirola was announced as the new driver of the No. 10 Ford following the departure of Danica Patrick, eyebrows around the racing community collectively raised. With only one career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in the 2014 rain-shortened July Daytona race and a highest career points finish of 16th, many were curious to see the results that the Florida native would gather as a driver for one of the sport’s premier teams. He hasn’t disappointed, as he’s already collected a personal best of 10 top-10 finishes, and he is locked into the NASCAR Playoffs on points thanks to a 14th– place finish in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. While Almirola has created success of his own, he has also raised the bar for the rest of his teammates.
“Aric has come in and really brought a new dynamic to the program”, Zipadelli said. “He’s a really appreciative kid to having this opportunity. He’s pretty upbeat and he’s very positive in our meetings and debriefs. He’s really, really smart with these cars, as far as what he wants and what he needs. He has a great feel and a good way to describe it. I think it has helped some of the other drivers, but at the same time, whenever you bring somebody else in who’s performing, it pushes everybody, you know. So there’s a little bit of healthy competition amongst the group, you know.”
A big deal for any team, much less one with four cars, is the ability to put every team of theirs into the NASCAR Playoffs, and Stewart-Haas Racing has successfully done that with one race to spare. In the past, Stewart-Haas Racing has seen struggles with the No. 10 and No. 14 machines throughout the course of a season. That is not the case this year, as three of the four Fords have seen Victory Lane in 2018, and the No. 10 has shown the ability to run up front more than it ever has, including a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, a race his teammate Kevin Harvick took the win. Stewart-Haas racing sees it as a “hat’s off” to all the hard work from the people within the team.
“When we’re here thinking about things and seeing things and sending stuff back to the shop, and they’re working their guts out all weekend out all weekend preparing good cars.” Zipadelli said. “It’s honestly been an awesome team effort. I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s not like one thing, there are just a lot of little things. Definitely getting us a year and the offseason to get caught up with the Fords and really start paying attention to some of the details and going back and revisiting a lot of the little things. That certainly helped us.
“Obviously, there’s a bit of a rule change this year with the way they’re inspecting the cars from the LSS, so I think our group was – we taxed them with trying to make sure that we were ahead of the curve and not behind the curve with that, and they did a really good job with that. That’s obviously little bits of performance on a weekly basis. The crew chiefs are working better together, we have more group texts going, a lot of little things, and it’s helping everybody.”
Now, with all four of Stewart-Haas Racing teams locked into the NASCAR Playoffs, the challenge is advancing to each round so that there’s an opportunity to compete for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. With changes to schedule, including a first-time Playoff visit to Richmond Raceway and the debut of the new Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL as a cut-off race, the task this year is different than what teams have faced since the four-round Playoff format was announced.
“Obviously, the Playoffs have changed a little bit from the races that we’re going to and Indy being later this year and Richmond being in it is just a little bit different.” Zipadelli says. “Obviously, it’s getting through the first handful of races and just not making mistakes, collecting points, and we should all move on, right? We don’t want to be the one that has made a mistake, blew a motor, had a bad pit stop, got in a wreck, whatever the case is and then all of the sudden you’re behind and you’ve got to go win.”
Following a hard-fought night at the Lady in Black, Stewart-Haas Racing came away with a fourth-place finish from Harvick, as well as a sixth-place finish from Busch. Bowyer was involved in an incident with 55 laps to go, where miscommunication led to Bowyer rear-ending the No. 31 Chevrolet of Ryan Newman as he was attempting to enter pit road. Now, all four teams will compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and begin competing in the NASCAR Playoffs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Photo Credit: Hunter Thomas/TheFourthTurn.com