Can Stewart-Haas Racing turn their season around at Kansas Speedway?
One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been Stewart-Haas Racing pitching a victory lane shutout. Ford's best team throughout most of 2018, an organization that put 100 percent of its four-car operation in the final eight of the NASCAR playoffs, has started the year an awkward 0-for-11.
It’s weird considering SHR has still brought decent speed. Each of their four cars sits solidly in playoff position; none of them is worse than 12th in the point standings. Offseason pickup Daniel Suarez, replacing Kurt Busch, has worked in seamlessly with this quartet; Kevin Harvick is the only driver not with Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing sitting inside the top five in points. Overall, this group has 10 top-5 finishes through the first three months of the season, accumulating a total most teams would beg for.
But this sport is a game of expectations and SHR, after jumping over and jumpstarting Ford prior to the 2017 season, expects to be in title contention. So it's notable Harvick is without a top-3 finish through this point in the year, a first for him in his sixth season driving for SHR. Aric Almirola, last season’s Cinderella darling has more DNFs (two) than top-5 finishes (one). Clint Bowyer has suffered through terrible luck, posting poor superspeedway finishes and fighting through circumstances that stifled victories at Texas and Richmond.
All the while, Penske has emerged front and center as Ford's first-class operation. Joey Logano snuck up on Harvick and the SHR bunch, emerging from Homestead-Miami Speedway last November as the series champion. Brad Keselowski has already won twice this year and leads the series in laps led (677). That's more than twice the total of SHR's entire four-car fleet.
So the Kansas race Saturday night (May 11) is a chance for SHR to get on track heading into NASCAR's All-Star Break. The team brought a little extra to single-car qualifying, sweeping the top four spots to earn precious track position with NASCAR's passing-at-a-premium new handling package.
When was the last time SHR went 1-2-3-4? Talladega last fall, a restrictor plate masterpiece for the organization where they put a clinic on the rest of the field. Can lightning strike twice with this type of dominating performance early on in the weekend? Harvick happens to be this race's defending champion and Bowyer, a Kansas native, is desperate for victory at his hometown track.
"We have done everything with what we feel like are not superior cars," Harvick said of his season to date. "The whole organization, engine shop, team, you can see a vast improvement across the board from our cars this week. We knew we were off at the beginning of the year and they have done nothing but work and work and work and work."
Can their efforts pay off in race trim? You can tell Harvick is tired of being asked when he’s going to win. No one in racing likes to run second and this group has spent the entire year a step behind.
Saturday night is their best chance this year to step up.
Digital Ally 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex took control of a rain-delayed race at Dover International Speedway Monday despite starting from the rear of the field. In what was perhaps the most difficult track to pass on all season, he marched through to the front, passing Alex Bowman in the final lap of stage two and cruising ahead to an eventual 9.5-second victory.
Truex now has three career wins at DIS, two of which were following rainouts (the other was his first career win in 2007). Most importantly, he’s won two out of the last three Cup races while becoming nice and comfy in his new home at Joe Gibbs Racing.
An honorable mention goes to Bowman, runner-up at Dover and for a second straight week in the Cup Series. A guy without a top-10 finish through the first nine races has catapulted himself from 21st to 13th in points ever since.
Who's at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
A solid start to the 2019 season has unraveled for Stenhouse over the past month. Scraping the outside wall at Dover led to a 33rd-place result, his third wreck in the last four races that leaves him languishing at 21st in Cup Series points.
What's discouraging is two of these incidents came at Bristol at Talladega, arguably Stenhouse's two best tracks on the circuit. It makes a 37-point deficit up to Erik Jones for the final playoff spot that much harder to make up; Daytona may be a win-or-else scenario for the No. 17 team. The success of Roush Fenway Racing's team car, the No. 6 with Ryan Newman makes these struggles stand out that much more.
NASCAR announced a small tweak to their 2019 rules package this week that increases the use of aero ducts at select tracks. Pocono Raceway, Darlington Raceway and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will now use the ducts that NASCAR required with their 550-horsepower package at other tracks.
That change wasn't the move many in NASCAR seemed to hope for after sharp criticism drew attention to their 2019 package after Dover. Kyle Busch simply said, "This package sucks" while others, like Cup Series owner Bob Leavine, echoed those comments. It was a very difficult weekend to pass overall, it seemed, with just three lead changes in the Dover Xfinity Series race followed by Truex's 9.5-second win. To be fair, it's notable Truex and second-place finisher Bowman started at the back of the field in a race people claimed no one could pass.
Former NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series owner Mike Mittler passed away from cancer Friday at the age of 67. Mittler, one of the series' original owners, became the launching pad for a number of NASCAR careers. Fellow Missouri native Carl Edwards was the most notable, running his first seven NASCAR races with Mittler in 2002, but the list also includes Jamie McMurray, Justin Allgaier and Regan Smith. Sadly, Mittler never won in 301 Truck starts and earned just one top-5 finish: a second from Bobby Pierce at Eldora Speedway in 2015.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Chevrolet drivers currently in position to make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs despite having more full-time drivers (17) than anyone else on the grid. Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson would qualify if the season ended today. Noticeably absent from the list? Jimmie Johnson.
Trucks that showed up for Friday night's race at Kansas Speedway, the first short field for NASCAR's support division all season. Several of those were expected to start and park after a number of teams withdrew due to lack of sponsorship. (A Truck race has up to 32 spots available.)
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick is probably your most reliable bet within the Stewart-Haas Racing quartet. He's the defending champion of this race, one of two victories in his last six Kansas starts. Harvick's led 70-plus laps three times during that stretch which translates into precious bonus points for daily fantasy junkies.
Joey Logano will be overlooked with SHR's strong showing for Ford. He had a mediocre qualifying run (20th) but don't let that fool you; Team Penske has struggled with one-lap speed in this new package. Race trim is where it counts and Logano has excelled, posting two career wins here and two straight top-10 finishes. Last fall, he ran eighth and led a race-high 100 laps.
Related: Best Kansas Speedway Drivers for DFS
Erik Jones wrecked out in his first Kansas Cup race, a one-off fill-in for an injured Kyle Busch in 2015. But he's turned that tough start around with runs of seventh and fourth his last two starts out at the track. It's been an up-and-down year for a young driver in contract extension negotiations and squarely on the postseason bubble; can he close the deal?
Alex Bowman is hard to leave off a fantasy roster after two straight runner-up finishes. Runs of 18th, seventh, and ninth at Kansas with Hendrick Motorsports make this track one of his better ones since settling behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Ride the hot hand.
Chris Buescher was just 16th at the Kansas race last fall. But he's shown more speed this year with JTG Daugherty Racing and his career average finish here (19.8) includes a sixth in the fall of 2017. This stat may surprise you but Buescher has run no worse than 20th at the cookie-cutter intermediate ovals this season.
We don't mention Corey Lajoie in this space very often. But Lajoie, who tied his career best at Talladega two weeks ago (11th), is racing at a track where he ran 24th with now-defunct TriStar Motorsports last year. Lajoie also is driving for a team (Go FAS Racing) that also ran top 25 here in 2018. It’s a good pick if you're looking for a bargain basement alternative in order to balance a top-heavy roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Points leader Kyle Busch remains on top of the odds charts with 7/2 odds to win at Kansas. Dover winner Martin Truex Jr. is at 11/2, followed by Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick at 13/2 odds.
What I Think
It’s time for SHR to get off the schneid. I'll go with hometown hero Clint Bowyer to put his Kansas demons aside and score a heartwarming Mother's Day weekend victory in his No. 14 Ford.