Track Smack: Stewart-Haas a team on the rise

1. Stewart-Haas Racing has won three times this season, and eight times in 16 starts dating back to the beginning of last year's Chase. Is SHR the new premier team in NASCAR's premier division?

David Caraviello:Well, this is one of those situations where the results plainly speak for themselves, don't they? This sport is ultimately all about performance, and there is zero arguing over what the SHR boys have done on the track since late last year. Newman's victory Sunday at Martinsville was circumstantial, thanks to all the havoc that preceded it, but he put himself in position and took advantage. As we've argued before, that's part of the deal. The train keeps a-rollin.'

Dave Rodman:Can't really call them "new" after Smoke's smokin' performance in the 2011 Chase. After winning a championship, as they did, it isn't possible to be called a flash in the pan. But what they've managed to accomplish so far in 2012 certainly establishes them as one of the "premiers" for sure. In fact, SHR has done it quicker than Hendrick did -- though SHR has the advantage of getting started with Hendrick stuff.

Mark Aumann:Here's the thing -- Tony Stewart wins a rain-shortened race at Fontana. Ryan Newman takes advantage of a three-car wreck to win at Martinsville, after three Hendrick cars completely dominated that race. There's being good and then there's being good and lucky. And the two drivers at the top of the standings drive for Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick.

Dave Rodman:I think I believe in the tenet pronounced so far -- but I think Jeff Gordon fits in this case. When you're good, you make your own luck. SHR fits that bill, these days.

David Caraviello:I think Tony would have won at Fontana had the event gone 400 laps -- there was no touching him that day. But hey, how many events has Kevin Harvick won by sweeping in at the end? How did Jimmie Johnson earn his golden horseshoe? Stuff is going to happen, and taking advantage of it is as much a part of racing as anything else, and those victories by Stewart and Newman the past two weeks count as much as any.

Mark Aumann:And the question is, are they the premier team, Dave, not a premier team. Are they the best team in the series right now? My argument is that they aren't, victories not withstanding. They're definitely in the mix, but the premier team? I'm not sold on that assumption.

David Caraviello:This is no disrespect meant to Greg Biffle or the turnaround crew chief Matt Puccia has helped engineer this season, but wins are everything in this sport. Tony has two and looks like he could muster many more. That's not to say things won't change, of course -- that's inevitable in NASCAR -- but given what we've seen so far this season, and what we saw late last year, I don't think there's any question SHR would stand atop an organizational power rankings if Mark decided to do one. There's lucky and good, and then there are both -- and that's what Tony's team is right now.

Dave Rodman:Right now, they are the best team, because the measuring point is results. So, I agree with David.

David Caraviello:Now, here's the big caveat, of course -- they're doing it with someone else's stuff. Do you count it against them that they're outsourcing chassis and engines, while other teams they're competing against do it all in-house? I struggle with that. Do Hendrick and Roush, say, get bonus points because they undertake the extra effort to build all their own equipment? If there's anything in my mind that would knock SHR off that perch right now, it's that they're relying on other organizations to get there.

Mark Aumann:At this point last year, Kevin Harvick had two wins -- one of those at Fontana -- and we could have very easily anointed RCR as the "premier team." And how did that turn out for them?

Team Results
Past 16 races
Childress 64 1 6 20
Hendrick 64 1 12 22
Roush 59 2 22 29
Gibbs 48 1 5 11
SHR 23* 8 11 18

Dave Rodman:Luckily we're only talking the here and now -- and right now, I think SHR is seriously making things happen.

Mark Aumann:Here's the thing about wins: Stewart won five times in the Chase and still wound up in a tie with Carl Edwards. Wins barely move the meter in the points standings -- and the standings are what determine the champion at the end of the season. Consistency is -- and always has been -- king. And right now, that's Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Now, you want to talk wild cards and some such, that's different. And with two wins, Stewart has pretty much already put himself in the Chase.

David Caraviello:Didn't wins ultimately determine the champion last year?

Dave Rodman:Good point, DC.

Mark Aumann:But Edwards never won a race in the Chase and still tied. That's the whole thing. The points system never has given the winner due credit. And yeah, Stewart won the tie-breaker. Good for him. Glad he needed five wins to do it, after doing squat in the first 26 races. Where was the 'SHR is the premier team in the sport' talk then? At what point did anyone look in their crystal ball and see this happening? This isn't an anomaly, but it's pretty close. They've been good -- and lucky. But are they better than Hendrick? Are they better than Roush?

David Caraviello:To me, Mark, the factors that could sway this away from SHR are off the track: the fact that Stewart-Haas doesn't undertake the huge effort of making all its own equipment -- which not many do anymore, I guess -- and the fact that they field fewer cars than their competition. They seem to have less on them, by choice, which perhaps allows them to put better results on the race track. Of course, all this ignores the existence of that mythical third SHR car, the No. 10. Oh wait, I forget, that belongs to Tommy Baldwin. Kind of. I think.

Mark Aumann:Hendrick cars led 80 percent of the race at Martinsville. Newman was in the right place at the right time. Viola, SHR is the premier team? Not making that leap of logic. Sorry, but two cars plus luck does not equal best.

2. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon seemed poised for a duel to the finish until circumstances intervened at Martinsville. Who should the Hendrick duo have been more upset with -- David Reutimann for causing the final caution, or Clint Bowyer for the wreck on the final restart?

Mark Aumann:One of them wins easily without Reutimann stopping on the track. And because they didn't come in for fresh rubber -- a move that would have certainly cost them track position, they were sitting ducks no matter who piled into them on the restart.

Dave Rodman:Since you could easily make the argument that three cars could go around Turn 1 at Martinsville, and you just can't blame anyone for trying to win, that leaves Reuttie. But even though they can be upset with David, I don't think you can blame him for anything. He was trying to make something happen, which is his job.

David Caraviello:I was in the car for much of last Sunday and got to listen to the whole race on MRN radio, and let me tell you, when Johnson and Gordon were going at it for the lead with three laps remaining, it was so riveting I had to pull over. And when the caution came out, I was angry. Not because the caution didn't need to be thrown, but few things irritate me more than an also-ran car affecting an outcome that should be determined by the guys in the lead. Nothing you can do about that, I guess, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Mark Aumann:What the heck. At some point, when the car's completely broken, you have to throw the whole "just trying to finish the race for one point" out the window. Especially when you've been black flagged. I get the reasoning. I don't get the decision. So let's blame the top 35 rule then.

Dave Rodman:That junk top 35 rule is too easy a target. Points are points and Reutimann would've been trying to gain as many as possible. As it is, he beat Kyle Busch by one lap for a position, so score one for TBR and David.

David Caraviello:Mark, I won't fight you on this one. Clearly David was trying to crawl around during those final few laps to help his position in relation to the top 35. And not just his position -- but Danica Patrick's, too. Barring a turnaround by the No. 10 or some kind of wheeling and dealing, she's facing the prospect of having to get in at Darlington -- of all places -- on speed when she returns to the car. That will be interesting, to say the least. I'm not saying that's on the minds of Reutimann or Baldwin when all this is going down Sunday, but in the bigger picture it surely plays a part.

Dave Rodman:It plays a role in the minds of all the minds looking at the big picture from outside the forest. TBR and Reutimann are concerned about Texas, about Kansas and about Richmond and Talladega before they get to Darlington. That's a lot of mileage to cover before they have to worry about Ms. P again.

David Caraviello:Oh, I'm sure, Dave. But it's all interconnected. I felt bad for Reutimann and Baldwin in the aftermath, given how apologetic Reutimann was especially. No question, they were just trying to make it to the end, which is understandable. But the impact it had was immense. The Hendrick cars were denied a chance to decide the outcome on their own, and fans were denied what was shaping up as a thriller of an ending.

Mark Aumann:And Dave, here's the thing: The race ended up going another 15 laps, which meant Reutimann was 16 laps ahead of Busch at the time. So the logic about "needing to gain that position" is totally flawed. If the race ended at Lap 500, Busch couldn't have gained that position anyway. If Busch was still running, he needed to have one more lap -- and that's what he accomplished. Pretty cool that he crossed the start/finish line before he stopped rolling.

Dave Rodman:Maybe TBR needs to get better mathematicians in their pit box.

Mark Aumann:Let me see if I can explain this really simply. If Reutimann doesn't bring out the caution, the race ends. He's the one who almost cost himself the position! And nothing against Reuttie. You're taught never to give up. But it was a terrible decision that impacted everybody on the track. And I know he understands that, based on how apologetic he was. Still, you have to be cognizant of where you are and what you're doing.

Dave Rodman:Mark, you could be their guy if you wanted to travel a few extra weekends. Heck, you might even be able to do it from home. I hear Chad Knaus has some good tips on home-to-race track communication.

David Caraviello:I was surprised at all the attention on Bowyer in the immediate aftermath, such as Gordon having a discussion with him outside the care center. You can argue what happened on that restart, of course, but it seemed the major players weren't immediately aware of the role the No. 10 car had played in bringing out that penultimate caution. Perhaps the post-race comments would have been a little different if they had been.

Dave Rodman:But now that you circle it back around to that, DC -- and I don't have the replay in front of me -- but Bowyer drove it into the curb in 1, bounced off and into Gordon, knocking him up the track. Johnson turned down on top of Gordon and the dance was on. If I was watching it again I'd be more adamant about whose fault it was. But bottom line, it was good, hard racing and the most ill people, at this point, are those whose guys lost. And that's all good.

Mark Aumann:Well, don't forget that Ryan Newman certainly helped Bowyer get in that position. That was a pretty good nudge. And if you're Chad Knaus or Alan Gustafson, you're stuck. You pit and lose the lead. You stay out and you're sitting ducks. And when everybody on the lead lap pitted, there wasn't anybody at the track who believed they could win then.

David Caraviello:Clint, he's getting aggressive on a restart. Happens everywhere, every week. Like Mark mentioned, Newman played a part in the whole thing, too. But ultimately, none of that happens if the No. 10 car gets off the race track when it's supposed to. Maybe we'll get a reminder in the driver's meeting at Texas to let the leaders determine the outcome of the race. It certainly would be warranted. Knaus and Gustafson took the only real option they had, and it might have worked out for one of them had things not gotten crazy. But of course, at Martinsville, I guess a little crazy should be assumed.

Dave Rodman:That's racing, all the way around.

* Newman offers no apology for Martinsville victory

3. For NASCAR teams, off weeks are often a time for reevaluation. What organizations need to look at shaking things up over the break?

Mark Aumann:If I'm Kasey Kahne, I'm buying anti-gremlin spray, avoiding ladders, black cats and dark clouds. What the heck does that team need to do to get rid of all the bad luck they've accumulated? And secondly, I think Earnhardt Ganassi is going to have to find something in a hurry. When the biggest news was Juan Montoya hitting the jet dryer at Daytona, that's not a good sign.

Dave Rodman:Kahne's team has been bad fast. Heck, they won the pole at Martinsville. All kidding aside, they don't need to do a darned thing more than what they are doing.

David Caraviello:Well, this is a familiar target here, but once again we're left with an Earnhardt Ganassi team that seems to have all the potential in the world and is once again struggling on the race track. Chip Ganassi called his organization's 2011 performance "pathetic," and so far it hasn't been much better in 2012. Juan Montoya is 17th in points, Jamie McMurray is 24th. I just don't get it. And given that they just made a ton of changes over there, I can't imagine they're ready to make more moves -- at least not yet.

Driver Results
2012 Season (six races)
Ku Busch 24.8 24.8 2 1
Ky. Busch 8.5 19.3 3 0
J. Gordon 16.0 22.5 2 1
Hamlin 14.2 10.3 5 0
Kahne 7.8 28.5 2 2
McMurray 18.7 22.5 2 2
Montoya 25.8 19.7 2 1

Mark Aumann:What if Kasey went to drive for Chip, and Juan went to drive for Rick? That would certainly be a shakeup.

David Caraviello:The thing about Kahne is, we know the cars are fast. We've seen it. We know the pieces are in place, and if bad stuff stops happening and that vehicle can just make it to the end of a race, they should be absolutely fine. I don't think you can say the same thing about the EGR guys. At least, it's not nearly as obvious. Having clear speed in the car gives you something of a safety net, but it's one not all teams have.

Mark Aumann:Another nomination, if I may: Kyle Busch. Again, expectations for this guy are always through the roof. But he hasn't really made the finishes match the performance.

Dave Rodman:On the other hand, Earnhardt Ganassi has been struggling to be consistent, or even to compete at the front. And Joe Gibbs Racing has kind of been enigmatic, too. Denny Hamlin did win a race, but he doesn't stand out, to me, as a paragon of consistency so far. And it seems like Kyle Busch hasn't even given himself a chance to compete. Good for Joey Logano for stepping up a bit in his critical contract year.

Mark Aumann:Paragon! Well struck, Dave. And if you're Montoya, McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Kahne or Kurt Busch, do you have to concentrate on wins now -- or is there still time to make up ground? I don't want to harp on the whole "just six races" deal, especially with the wild card out there. But boy, if you haven't kicked in a couple of top 10s and led a few laps, you'd better be spending the Easter break going back through your notes and throwing some new stuff on the car for Texas and Kansas.

Dave Rodman:You're right, Mark. It's "just" six races, but that's more than enough to set the tone for a season, and EGR is a little off-key right now. The wild card is the intriguing factor right now, as it was last year -- though in the end it didn't quite turn out to be the deal-maker it could have. Heck, three races or so ago I said winning races was Kasey's only hope to make the Chase. That's still in effect, right now.

David Caraviello:When it comes to Kyle, I keep thinking about how he dominated the first half of that race out in California, and wonder if crew chief Dave Rogers and that bunch have a strong intermediate-track package ready to go. Denny has been faster than his results, and he's won a race. With a lot of these teams that are performing, say, not yet quite up to expectations, there's enough going right that you have faith it will all work out in the end. But for others? No, it's not early anymore, Mark. At this point, what you have is what you're going to have.

Mark Aumann:We're not even through April, let alone reached all the summer races. And some of the guys we're talking about are pretty damned good at the tracks coming up. Still, you don't want to push the panic button, but you might want to ratchet things up a notch.

David Caraviello:Mark, I think you hit on it -- with Texas and Kansas coming up, and intermediate tracks dominating the Chase, you better believe everyone is going hard on those downforce packages right about now. This open week may not necessarily be the one to make personnel changes -- that comes later in the year -- but it's certainly one to reevaluate where you are on intermediate tracks and tailor setups for these next two weeks.

Mark Aumann:And don't discount the loss of the third open date. There's less time to regroup and reset than in previous seasons -- although it came so early in the year that it didn't really affect were we are now.

Dave Rodman:Let's revisit this tack at about Dover. By then, we're really going to know if it's too late for anything but Victory Lane for some of these teams. But still, those guys who have been struggling have to start turning potential into top 10s and top fives at some point.

David Caraviello:Wait -- Dover's in June! Certainly, we should have a much firmer idea of who the main players and the pretenders are before that. But of course, Dover does have gambling and the best crab cakes on the circuit, so I won't complain.

Mark Aumann:It's a date, Dave. We'll have to meet up at the casino and play a few hands of blackjack. Our luck certainly has to be better than Kasey Kahne's.

Dave Rodman:Let's make sure Kasey's invite is one day off from ours.

Mark Aumann:Thank goodness that race isn't on the 13th.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.

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