COMMENTARY | It would be easy to blame Danica Patrick for the sluggish performance of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2013. After all, the Sprint Cup NASCAR team has struggled since Patrick joined drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman at the beginning of the season. There is, however, more to the story.
Stewart decided in the fall of 2011 to hire Patrick, who arrived with sponsor dollars from GoDaddy and a superstar fan base. The announcement came after NASCAR announced it would change cars for the 2013 season. No one anticipated how difficult the change would be for the championship team.
Patrick got an introduction to NASCAR's top series when she drove a 10-race schedule under a collaborative partnership with Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2012 before starting a full season at Stewart-Haas in 2013.
The team's problems in 2013 have been a combination of the struggle to adapt to the new car and the logistics associated with expanding the shop to include a third team.
No one should blame Patrick for joining the team of her friend and mentor when he decided to expand his operation. Stewart also made the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR, where he was Rookie of the Year in 1999 before winning his first of three championships in 2002.
The blame should fall squarely on the team's management for trying to expand at the same time NASCAR rolled out a new car. Although the team gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports, SHR was late getting some of the parts necessary to build the new Gen-6 cars. The team's inability to quickly adapt to the new car that NASCAR rolled out in 2013 was beyond Patrick's control.
In May, with all three teams struggling, director of competition Greg Zipadelli admitted the organization had underestimated the process when it shuffled personnel and added new people for the third car.
After she started on the pole and finished eighth in the Daytona 500, Patrick's statistics have been unimpressive. She has only finished in the top 20 drivers two times but has continued to learn from each track she visits. Her performances can be traced, in large part, to the struggles at SHR and not necessarily to her ability on the track.
Patrick Gaining Experience
Patrick has lived up to the goals set forth before the season started. Her job was to get seat time, gain experience on the various tracks and garner the respect of her fellow drivers. She has been successful on all three fronts.
Stewart was disappointed when he finished ninth in the 2012 Chase. Imagine his disappointment this year if no Stewart-Haas driver gets a spot in the Chase. Heading into the second half of the season in early July, Stewart sat 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, Newman 18th and Patrick 27th. With one win, Stewart has the best chance of the three team drivers to make a run for a championship by grabbing a wild-card spot.
Kevin Harvick Will Join Stewart-Haas in 2014
Richard Childress acknowledged to those of us on the NASCAR Media Tour in January that Kevin Harvick would leave Richard Childress Racing, where he has raced since 2001, at the end of 2013 for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick is having a great final year at RCR. He finished the first half of the season with two wins, meaning valuable bonus points in a run for the championship. Harvick is fourth in the standings as the teams head back to Daytona and should easily make the 12-car field that will run for a Sprint Cup championship.
Stewart-Haas could learn from the mistakes it made this year and replace Newman instead of adding a fourth team for Harvick. Newman has been with the team since it started but after the U.S. Army ended its NASCAR affiliation this year, Newman is driving under a one-year contract.
The Stewart-Haas cars have been getting more competitive as the summer progresses. Making the 2013 NASCAR Championship Chase is a real possibility for the 42-year-old Stewart, who has a reputation for heating up the track when the weather gets warm. Newman and Patrick are unlikely to turn their seasons around before the postseason field is set.
Patrick is a talented driver who came to NASCAR's top series with far less experience than many other drivers. She is learning and should be an asset to the team in 2013. Look for the Stewart-Haas team to turn things around in 2014, whether or not the driver lineup includes Newman.
Rosalie Thompson lives in South Carolinas and has reported on NASCAR for four years. In addition to race coverage, she has reported from the preseason NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, NASCAR Media Day in Daytona and the postseason NASCAR Champions Week in Las Vegas.
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