COMMENTARY | Less than two years ago, Tony Stewart was on top of the world.
In November 2011, he had just claimed his third overall Cup title and his first as an owner-driver after a near-perfect Chase run.
Five races into the 2013 season, things aren't as peachy at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Let's look at the numbers: All three Stewart-Haas drivers are mired deep in the standings. Ryan Newman is 20th in points, with three top 10 finishes and two DNFs in the first five races. And he's leading the way for SHR.
Tony Stewart's year has been equally disappointing. He has just one top 10 finish and sits 22nd in points.
New wrinkle in 2014
As the team works to address what is causing its current woes, it is also in the process of thinking ahead to 2014. That's when Kevin Harvick will arrive at Stewart-Haas Racing after finishing his final year at Richard Childress Racing this season. The story of Harvick's move for 2014 initially broke last fall and was confirmed by Childress earlier this year.
That brings a new number to the equation: four, as in a four-car team. Currently, NASCAR's only team with four full-time drivers is Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If Harvick comes to the fold in 2014 and nobody else budges, that means he will join Stewart, Patrick and Newman at Stewart-Haas.
One question that will no doubt be raised if that plan begins to take shape is an obvious one: If the team is struggling in 2013 with three cars, will adding a fourth car make the team better or complicate things further?
Less is more?
Stewart-Haas isn't the first team to deal with growing pains. After years of flirting with growing the team, Stewart finally did so this year by adding Danica Patrick as the team's third full-time car. There are positives to having extra cars (more data to work with, more sponsorship money coming), but there can also be more distractions and the results historically don't always work out well.
Roush Racing ballooned to as big as five teams in the past but that proved unsustainable, so it has contracted back to three cars (in part due to NASCAR rule changes limiting teams to four cars, and in part due to sponsorship woes).
Richard Childress had tried to go the four-car route in the past, but it hasn't worked out, largely due to sponsor issues and inability to maintain all the teams at a top level.
Ryan Newman's future
Most of the speculation this year at SHR revolves around Ryan Newman, who has been discussed in the past as someone whose future at the SHR team might be in jeopardy. He has no contract for 2014, and there has been talk that Roger Penske would like to bring him back to the team where he started his Cup career.
Money is a key factor in determining Newman's future with the team, with sponsorship lacking for part of this year and into the future. If the #39 car's sponsorship situation doesn't get more steady, eliminating the car (and Newman with it) becomes a real possibility for the team.
Whatever happens, Newman says he'll be OK.
"I just don't have the things done on paperwork to say what I'm doing in 2014, which doesn't the change the way I drive this year Where I end up, that's where I end up. If I stay, I stay. If I don't, I don't. I have to do what's best for me," Newman said prior to the beginning of the 2013 season.
Kevin Harvick shaking things up
The move of Harvick from RCR to SHR is a move SHR has high hopes for, as he's a proven winner. But a transition to a new team isn't always seamless, and there's no telling how it will go.
The most positive viewers of this situation will say that Harvick is going to revitalize the team by bringing his talent and his sponsors to SHR, but as with any team transition, the level of success Harvick will see in 2014 is completely unpredictable.
Sometimes those moves net quick positive results (Matt Kenseth this year, for example), but that's no guarantee and often the transition to a new ride is a slow process that doesn't lead to such sudden success.
Danica Patrick down-sliding
When Danica Patrick won the pole for Daytona, ran up front all day and led a lap, it was one of the biggest stories of the year in all of sports, reported in every corner of the globe. Since then, the buzz on Danica has been quiet because of her struggles: finishes of 39th, 33rd, 28th and 26th, due in part to bad starting positions (40th, 37th, 41st and 40th).
Patrick said earlier this season that, for her, this season is about learning and improving.
"If you learn and grow, you are going to finish better. That learning curve is different for everyone, which is why it is difficult to say where I should be at a certain point in time ... I guess I would say the most important thing overall, if you look at the big picture, is to learn and grow," Danica said while addressing the media at Phoenix. "Good races and good finishes can just happen, and sometimes you don't know why. Sometimes it's because of other people's misfortunes, your luck -- which is a big part of the sport. But, learning is something that is going to pay off over time far more than being lucky one weekend."
The fact that the SHR team is now expected to be championship-caliber is pretty amazing, considering the origins of Stewart-Haas Racing. The team that existed before SHR, then known as Haas-CNC Racing was a bottom-of-the-barrel team that struggled to even stay in the top 35 in points.
Many people thought Stewart would tank when he left the successful Joe Gibbs Racing organization to try to turn the lowly Haas CNC team into a successful Stewart-Haas team. Within three years, he had won his first title at his own team, silencing critics.
The futureNo one is sounding the alarm at SHR just yet after just five races in 2013. But If things don't get turned around this year, there will be a lot to discuss about how to proceed into next year and beyond.
What started out as a gamble for Tony Stewart has now turned into a team that people expect to succeed, and now is the time where he has to make the proper decisions about how to make that happen in the short-term and long-term.
Three teams or four teams? Is Newman part of the future? It is all on the table to be figured out before this season ends.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Tony Stewart
- Ryan Newman
- Danica Patrick
- Kevin Harvick