It's a start.
That's the way Stewart-Haas Racing owner/driver Tony Stewart sees his team's two top-10 finishes in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Normally that would be considered a mediocre night for the three-time series champ, but with the way the team has struggled this season, it's a small -- but important -- victory.
As he's done for much of the year, SHR driver Ryan Newman led the way for the team with a sixth-place finish, but his boss Stewart crossed the line right behind him -- the seventh-place effort his best of the year. Rookie Danica Patrick was scored 29th after being collected in an accident.
There were other reasons to be encouraged. Stewart, who started 25th, led laps (seven) for only the second time this season -- the last time back in March at Phoenix. Also significant, Stewart's crew was able to improve the car as the race went on, something that has hampered the team previously.
So when he climbed out of his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, he was more happy than frustrated.
"We finally got some stability in the car, one change there at the end of the race just made a huge, huge difference," Stewart said.
SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli was similarly hopeful that the weekend could serve as a turning point heading into summer, typically the strongest portion of the schedule for Stewart.
"All three of our cars made big improvements this week in terms of performance, and we ended up with a couple of good finishes," Zipadelli said. "Danica (Patrick) had a bad day, but overall it was certainly an improvement."
With his team-best sixth top-10, Newman moved up a position in the Sprint Cup standings to 16th, only 20 points behind 10th place Brad Keselowski. Stewart also moved up a spot and is ranked 20th, significant because he could still win a Wild-Card berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup if he is ranked among the top 20 and wins more races than the non top-10 drivers in front of him.
Patrick, meanwhile, is ranked 30th -- 13 positions behind Rookie of the Year competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
On a mission. ? Denny Hamlin continued his march to a Chase berth Sunday night, scoring a fourth-place finish in NASCAR's longest race, all the more remarkable considering he's still healing from a broken back.
He has moved up seven points positions in the two races since he has been back full time and now sits 24th. While it would be quite ambitious for Hamlin to expect he'd qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as one of the top-10 in points, it is completely reasonable -- especially with his effort so far -- to see him earn one of the two Chase Wild Card spots.
To do that he would need to move into the top 20 in points and win a race -- or two.
He trails 20th-place Stewart by 53 points right now and is coming into a favorable part of the schedule based on past wins.
The "Closer". ? Kevin Harvick has earned that nickname honestly. He may be the most efficient winner of his generation.
In the past three seasons he has seven wins. With the exception of a dominating 202 laps led en route to a win at Richmond in the fall of 2011, he has led a total of 55 laps in the other six victories combined.
The 28 laps out front Sunday was the most he'd led in a win in three years.
"I think a lot of that comes from growing up, and when we raced, because you had to race next week,'' Harvick explained. "The only way to race the next week was to win enough prize money the week before so you could buy tires, whatever the case may be, to race.
"My dad, anybody I ever drove for before, would probably tell you the same thing. I'm not going to burn my car up in the first half of the race, go out and show off basically. That's what happens at the beginning of the race."
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
2: Number of top-10s for Stewart thanks to his seventh-place on Sunday. Also the number of races he's led this year -- including the Coca-Cola 600.
3: Number of top-five finishes for Kurt Busch after a third-place showing Sunday -- his best outing with the Furniture Row Racing team.
7: Major victories on Memorial Day race weekend for Bakersfield, Calif. drivers: Harvick (two in NASCAR Coca-Cola 600), Casey Mears (1 in Coca-Cola 600) and Rick Mears (four in the Indy 500)
20: Years to the day since Dale Earnhardt earned the first Coca-Cola 600 win for Richard Childress Racing.
THEY SAID IT
-- Then race leader Kasey Kahne's reply on the radio after being told everyone behind him came in for tires just prior to final restart.
"I told Danica one day we'll be the windshield and not the bug.''
-- Danica Patrick's crew chief Tony Gibson, who said the team is making progress despite being caught up in a late race wreck Sunday night.
"I saw this streak go by me. What in the hell was that?. ?You got to believe in your eyes. I tell myself, You got to believe what you saw.''
-- Race winner Kevin Harvick explaining his reaction to seeing the damaged television cable come down in the middle of the race.
The top of the Sprint Cup Series standings still looks familiar despite an eventful night for so many. But there were some significant movers and losers in the points following the Coca-Cola 600.
It was a sneaky good night for Carl Edwards. Although he led only seven of the 400 laps and never really threatened to win the race, his 11th-place finish combined with points leader Jimmie Johnson's misfortune (22nd) allowed Edwards to pull within 32 points of Johnson entering Sunday's race at Dover, Del.
Similarly, Martin Truex Jr.'s workmanlike night -- a ninth-place finish -- earned him the biggest jump in the entire Cup standings. He moved up five positions and is now ranked ninth.
Race winner Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard both vaulted three positions and sit solidly in the Chase field, ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.
On the flip side, reigning champ Brad Keselowski (wreck), Kyle Busch (engine) and Aric Amirola (wreck) all had rough outings. Each fell three positions in the standings but remain Chase players, ranked 10th, 11th and 12th , respectively.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped from fourth to sixth in the standings after an engine problem late in the race.
The Sprint Cup Series moves from the monster marathon of a race, the Coca-Cola 600 to the Monster Mile, Dover International Raceway this week for a change of pace. The concrete one-miler will host all three of NASCAR's national series.
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