The 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup did not get off to the kind of start Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart had envisioned.
Now they’ll both look to get back on track to secure advancement out of the first round of the Chase playoffs this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Tony Stewart finished 16th in the Chase opener last Sunday at Chicagoland, and admitted afterward that it actually could have been worse for his No. 14 SHR Chevrolet. He credited crew chief Mike Bugarewicz for at least making enough adjustments after a poor practice day on Saturday to keep him on the lead lap most of Sunday.
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"It wasn’t much fun, but I was proud of Mike and the guys on the Rush Truck Centers Chevy," said Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Premier Series champion. "We were probably a car that was going to be three or four laps down if we had to race (on Saturday)."
It helped that twice in Sunday’s race Stewart was the first car one lap down when a caution came out. Both times he was therefore the beneficiary of a NASCAR rule that allows the first car one lap down when a caution flag waves to get back on the lead lap.
"(On Sunday) we got the ‘Lucky Dog’ twice, but we were much better (than earlier in the weekend)," Stewart said. "We just weren’t good enough to be where we needed to be."
Despite the marked improvements in the race, Stewart said he isn’t fooled by it. There is much work to be done if he’s going to advance out of the first round of the Chase playoffs, he said.
"We gained on it for sure," Stewart said. "But you gain on it and still aren’t going to be good enough to move to the next round if we don’t get better than this."
The 16-driver Chase field gets trimmed to 12 after the next two races at New Hampshire and Dover. At least Stewart is in slightly better position than Harvick, who was forced to start from the rear of the field on Sunday after what NASCAR said was an unapproved body modification.
Harvick’s No. 4 SHR Chevy was fast, gaining 14 spots in the first four laps of the race. He eventually raced inside the top 10, but then had his chances of a promising finish dashed when a caution that fell just right for Stewart fell the opposite way for him.
Harvick was on pit road in the middle of a four-tire stop when one caution came out. The team aborted the call for four tires and instead put on only two, hoping to get Harvick out of the pits in time to stay on the lead lap.
When Harvick narrowly missed beating the leaders out, he was trapped a lap down and also did not have a complete set of fresh tires.
Had they not changed strategy and stayed with giving Harvick four tires, the driver could have taken the wave-around when the remaining cars pitted. That’s the strategy several other drivers utilized to their ultimate advantage, including fellow Chaser Kyle Larson.
The rub: Harvick and Childers were counting on another caution soon falling and getting their lap back via the free-pass rule. But a lack of cautions — there were only four all day — threw the proverbial wrench into that plan and Harvick ultimately finished 20th, one lap down.
Immediately after the race Childers lamented the set of circumstances that worked against the No. 4 team, telling his driver over the team radio: "I guess I should have pitted one lap later and we’d have been all right. All day you were fast."
Now, however, they head to New Hampshire in a Chase hole. It’s hardly unfamiliar territory for Harvick, who went into the final race of Round 1 in the Chase last year at Dover needing to win to advance — and did.
Stewart, facing his own problems, said he takes only a small measure of comfort in the fact that he finished second at New Hampshire in the race there in mid-July.
"Well, it was a good race for us (earlier), but I mean some of the guys that finished behind us are guys that are really good there, too," Stewart said. "We are going to have to be on our game these next two weeks."