Stewart-Haas turn gem
By Dan Gelston
LOUDON, N.H. — Tony Stewart called New Hampshire a perfect weekend for his organization. And with good reason.
Ryan Newman’s first victory of the season from the pole and Stewart’s second-place finish gave Stewart-Haas Racing its first 1-2 start and finish.
Think Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon did that at Hendrick Motorsports? Nope. No set of teammates started 1-2 and finished 1-2 since the 1989 Daytona 500 when Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader pulled off the feat.
The last time teammates qualified 1-2 and finished first and second in the same order was in 1957 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Fireball Roberts won from the pole while teammate Paul Goldsmith started second and finished second. In 1989, Waltrip won, but started second. Schrader started from the pole and finished second.
“For the organization to take the front row and get first and second, you couldn’t ask for a better weekend,” Stewart said.
With a rare off week ahead before heading to Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400, the celebration will be a long one. But once the glow wears off, Stewart-Haas Racing has two crucial questions to answer: Where were these kinds of runs all season? What must be done to crank it up and contend?
Newman has been a more consistent driver than his boss, Stewart. Newman’s win, his first since April 2010, was his sixth top-five this season. He finished fourth the previous race at Kentucky and showed flashes in other races of coming so close to taking the checkered flag.
“We’ve been really good for three-quarters of the race, then we’ll come home fourth, fifth, 10th, not maybe make the right call, strategy, whatever it is, to put ourselves in the box of top five to close out the race,” Newman said. “There have been times where we had failures, bad pit stops. All those things add up.”
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, hasn’t had the kind of consistent up-front runs he demands of himself and his team and hadn’t had a top-five finish since the second race of the season in Las Vegas.
Stewart realized last month the season was falling short of the big expectations when he fired competition director Bobby Hutchens. Stewart said at New Hampshire that the job is open and the search continues.
It seems unlikely he’ll have a replacement by the time of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship on Sept. 18.
Will he have a spot in the Chase?
With seven races left until the field is frozen, both drivers have positioned themselves to be in the hunt for a spot. Newman solidified his place with the victory and is eighth in the standings.
The top-10 drivers automatically earn a spot. Two spots in the Chase will go to the winningest drivers ranked between 11 and 20.
Stewart knows a win would but all but guarantee him a place in the field. The standings bear that out. He’s 11th even though he has the same point total as 10th-place driver Denny Hamlin. But Hamlin has one win, leaving Dale Earnhardt Jr. the only driver in the top 10 without a victory.
Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said this may have been the best three days in the brief history of SHR, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the season is magically turned around. Whatever they hit on worked, and it’s up to every member of both teams to keep the momentum going into the Chase.
“We kind of got off track a little bit this year,” he said. “I think we’re just trying to make sure we head back in the right direction. Grab everybody by the arms, tug ‘em, bring ‘em in, head down that road instead of going down two roads. For us it’s not one guy is doing a bad job, it’s a matter of everybody doing a good job.”
Stewart is heading into one of his better tracks. Stewart has two Cup victories at Indy and a third and a fifth the last two years. Newman has only one career top 10 at Indy in 10 career starts.
Newman complained that New Hampshire wasn’t one of his favorite tracks. But he left Sunday with wins in the Cup series and on the Modified Tour on Saturday. So the time for Indy to become a favorite is only a race away.
Maybe the 1-2 double isn’t realistic. But more top fives sure are.