BRISTOL, Tenn. – There is no panic at Stewart-Haas Racing despite a sub-par start to the season that is tarnishing Tony Stewart’s comeback from a broken leg.
Stewart needed a provisional to make today’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he’s scheduled to start 37th after an awful qualifying session for the four-car organization. Danica Patrick, who wrecked three minutes into Friday’s first practice, was the last car to qualify on speed at 36th. Kevin Harvick, the lone bright spot for the organization this season, qualified 27th, and Kurt Busch had the best effort for SHR at 13th.
It’s just been that kind of start for SHR, which is trying to figure out how to get all its cars running equally just months after replacing Ryan Newman with Harvick and adding Busch to become a four-car organization.
“Everywhere we go, we’ve got two cars that run pretty good. We haven’t gotten a weekend where everybody’s run great,” vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said Saturday. “It’s hard to have four cars. I think you can get four cars running good, but it’s harder to get them to all finish good.”
The most glaring problems have been with Stewart, who returned Feb. 14 after missing the final 15 races last season with a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car crash at Iowa. His first time back in his No. 14 Chevrolet was a day before the first exhibition race at Daytona, and the race was cut short for him when he was caught in a multi-car accident.
Engine problems ruined the Daytona 500 for him, he was a mediocre 16th at Phoenix, and Stewart struggled with an awful car at Las Vegas last week and finished 33rd.
“He hasn’t complained about his leg. His attitude, his effort, his spirits have been great,” Zipadelli said. “We’re just not giving him what he’s comfortable with. We’re dragging the racetrack. It’s not little things. It’s way off. Last week was a human error. He did an amazing job driving that car. I went down in the corner and watched it and most people would have wrecked that thing. We got it home and found some mechanical . human error. Shame on us. That stuff can’t happen at this level. It certainly shouldn’t happen to that caliber of driver. We owe him a lot more than that.”
But Zipadelli insisted the temperamental Stewart has remained calm while trying to be part of the solution. Because Stewart was not cleared to drive until mid-February, he missed out on all preseason testing and wasn’t able to work with new crew chief Chad Johnston until the start of Speedweeks. Zipadelli said the No. 14 team has a heavy upcoming test schedule and Stewart will be the driver.
“He’s got all the right in the world to be screaming and calling them everything he wants because we have not done a good job for him this year, as far as this group,” Zipadelli said. “But he has been more of a leader and trying to motivate and keep everyone in the game.”
It’s up to Johnston, though, to keep Stewart placated.
Johnston, who joined SHR in December from Michael Waltrip Racing, is Stewart’s third crew chief since he left Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009. Stewart and Zipadelli were together for 10 seasons and two championships, but he failed to find the same chemistry with Darian Grubb and Steve Addington and is now a month into Johnston.
“It’s a no-win situation unless you win with Tony. Let’s face it. If it’s not, if your cars are not good enough, or if he’s not running up front every week leading laps, well then it’s your fault. I battled it for 10 years,” Zipadelli said, adding that Johnston is “doing a good job. As a group, I feel they are closer as a group. They are working better together, their communication is better.
“It seems every week they start a little bit behind in trying to figure out what he wants. I feel like the group we have there will do a really good job once we find that platform that Tony wants. They’re very detailed, understanding and will be able to tune and be able to bring him the same thing week in and week out once they find it.”
Here are five things from Bristol Motor Speedway:
Weather watch: The National Weather Service isn’t predicting a smooth day for NASCAR. There was an 85 percent chance of rain for the start of the race, increasing to 100 percent throughout the afternoon. Although the track has lights, there was a 77 percent chance of rain after 8 p.m. The upside for the .533-mile concrete oval is that it can be typically dried in under an hour, providing the rain gives NASCAR a window to attempt to race. NASCAR needs only to get to the halfway mark (250 laps), for the event to be official.
Qualifying edge: Team Penske has dominated the new knockout qualifying format with two sweeps of the front row this season, and Brad Keselowski will start second and Joey Logano will roll off fourth. Matt Kenseth alleges it’s because the organization enlisted help from other Ford teams – specifically Leavine Family Racing and driver Michael McDowell – to test setups in advance for Penske. “I think they’ve been to all three tracks with their ‘satellite teams,’” Kenseth said. “I think they’ve gathered a lot of information at all these tracks and was really prepared when the season started.” Penske vice president of operations Michael Nelson denied any wrongdoing by the organization, and NASCAR said it’s seen nothing improper and teams are free to share information.
Final practice: Casey Mears posted the fastest lap of Saturday’s final practice, but it was the Penske cars that led the field in best 10 consecutive lap average. Brad Keselowski, winner last week at Las Vegas, was on top of the leaderboard and followed by teammate Joey Logano. Third went to defending race winner Kasey Kahne. The best 10 consecutive lap average is considered a better indicator of how a strong a car is for the race.
Cassill’s crash: Landon Cassill made the field for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 but his day was derailed by a frightening crash in the closing moments of Saturday’s final practice. Cassill slammed hard in the wall when the rear tire of his JD Motorsports entry inexplicably came off the Chevrolet. “I looked at the car and it looks like the rear-end housing broke, maybe about six inches out from the end of the housing,” Cassill said. “It’s a real tough break for this team, but we’re happy to be in the race.” Cassill had to go to a backup.
Fan vote: Voting opens today for the Sprint Fan Vote to push one driver into the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 17 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Fans can cast their ballots an unlimited number of times, and for the first time, the Sprint Fan Vote will include a sweepstakes awarding one voter a trip for two to any 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship race. Voting can be done on the NASCAR mobile app, which will count double toward a driver’s total, through NASCAR.com and at The Sprint Experience at all Sprint Cup Series races.