Harvick’s victory serves notice: Early returns are encouraging for SHR
After Kevin Harvick’s stunning victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway in only his second race with Stewart-Haas Racing, team founder and co-owner Gene Haas had just one thing to say to Harvick: "Well, it took long enough," Haas deadpanned in Harvick’s post-race press conference.
And that somehow seemed appropriate given the sky’s-the-limit potential of SHR and the equally strong potential for volatility within the four-car squad.
A quick refresher: Harvick signed to drive for SHR in late 2012, enduring a lame duck 2013 season at Richard Childress Racing. Last August, just days after Tony Stewart suffered a double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash, Haas hired Kurt Busch to drive a fourth SHR car for this season – without Stewart’s approval. Add in Danica Patrick, and all of a sudden, SHR had four extremely strong personalities, three of whom had won NASCAR Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series championships.
The new-look SHR was either going to be NASCAR’s next super team or NASCAR’s next supernova.
While it’s way too early to come up with a definitive call on how SHR ultimately will evolve this season, suffice to say the early returns are encouraging. After a somewhat disappointing Daytona Speedweeks, Harvick drubbed the field at Phoenix, leading 224 of 312 laps to win his fifth race here.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, thinks Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the rest of the No. 4 team might be the squad to win it all this year.
"They beat everybody before they came to the track today," said Keselowski, who finished third at PIR. "It is a great combination and they were prepared for the weekend. … They were really prepared. We saw it all the way through testing, that they were dominant. They showed it when they came to the actual racetrack to race. I would look for big things out of that team. They looked a lot like the 20 car (Matt Kenseth) did last year at this time. They have that honeymoon syndrome going on and (are) taking full advantage of it."
Runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he wasn’t surprised that Harvick held the lead on each of the final four restarts over the last 65 laps of the race.
"He’s not a rookie," Earnhardt said of Harvick. "Guy’s been around a long time, knows what he’s doing. He’s won some races here. He feels good and confident about what he’s doing here. He won last year here. When you’re winning at a place with regularity in recent months, you got a lot of confidence."
Haas said he wasn’t worried about what outsiders thought.
"I think there was a lot of skepticism last year about what myself and Tony, what we were up to," said Haas. "Was there a lot of madness to this? Quite frankly, I have to agree with Rodney, that it’s a great team. There’s a lot of synergy at the shop of people working together. I don’t know what we did, but I think we put together a great organization. I’m very thankful for Rodney and Kevin for being the magic it takes to win these things. We’ll make sure we don’t disturb that."
For his part, Harvick said he had no time for the haters who questioned whether this would work.
"There’s been a lot of skepticism as we’ve gone through the off-season," Harvick said. "For me, honestly you hear it, I paid attention to it during the off-season obviously, but as we’ve gone through the first few weeks, you try to put yourself in your own little world. … All in all, Gene has given us every resource that you can imagine. Tony has been just very supportive of whatever we wanted to do. Rodney has put together a group of guys that believes in what we’re doing."
While there was a lot of consternation when Busch was hired, Childers said it unexpectedly proved to be an advantage for the No. 4 team.
"It’s actually worked out really good," said Childers, who moved to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing late last season. "But I’m really fortunate that he (Harvick) believed in me and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene, Smoke and Zippy (SHR competition boss Greg Zipadelli) believed in me.
"It’s fun to see this all come from basically where we started when Gene and the guys decided that Kurt was going to come over, Zippy called me and said, ‘We’re going to have to start from nothing pretty much.’ I said, ‘That’s perfect. We can do it all the way I want to do it, we can work hard at it and make it happen.’"
And so far at least, that’s exactly what’s happened.
"It wasn’t that I couldn’t be a part of the (Sprint Cup) championship before, it’s just that we hadn’t won a championship before," said Harvick. "We do this to win. You want to win races. We’ve been fortunate to do that in the past. But in this arena it’s about winning championships and trying to be competitive on a weekly basis."
Right now, that’s exactly what they are doing. And they look very, very good doing it.