By Jerry Bonkowski
Could NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart make a comeback to the Cup Series? He may have to!
Given how his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, is collectively performing this season, the 49-year-old Stewart may have to pull his fire suit out of the closet if things continue as rough as they have been.
What’s happened to SHR? That’s a question that is increasingly being asked by both disappointed fans of the organization, as well as fans of rival teams who may be taking glee at how SHR has struggled in 2021.
It’s not just one or two drivers, it’s EVERYBODY on SHR that is having dismal campaigns:
SHR’s top driver, Kevin Harvick, has literally fallen off the map, performance-wise. Not only is he in the very unfamiliar position of ninth-place in the standings – 210 points behind series points leader Denny Hamlin – even worse is the fact that the driver of the No. 4 SHR Ford has yet to win a race this season!
How can that be from a guy who won a series-high nine races – one-quarter of the 36-race schedule – last season!!
Wait a minute: there’s something even worse … it’s not just Harvick. NO driver in the SHR camp has reached victory lane this season!
Harvick not only has failed to take even one checkered flag this season, he only has six top-5 finishes.
Although, to be fair, Harvick has been knocking on the door, having 14 top-10 showings in the first 21 races.
But then the bottom falls out from there with the other three SHR Cup drivers:
The next highest-ranked SHR driver – coming in at 23rd place heading into this weekend’s race at New Hampshire – is Chase Briscoe. Like Harvick, Briscoe is winless in 2021, and has just two top-10 finishes. If Stewart comes back, could Clint Bowyer – the former occupant of the No. 14 after Stewart seeded it to him – also come back, if need be?
Aric Almirola is ranked 27th. He has just one top-5 and two top-10 finishes. But that’s not the worst of it: of the top 30 drivers, Almirola has a series-leading five DNFs!
And then there’s Cole Custer, son of SHR general manager Joe Custer. The younger Custer is ranked 28th, right behind teammate Almirola, with a meager two top-10 finishes as his only highlights thus far this season.
Has SHR collectively forgotten how to win? No.
To be fair, NASCAR is a cyclical sport, where yesterday’s hero is today’s zero. Look at Jack Roush and Roush Fenway Racing. After dominating much of the Cup Series from about 2001 through 2008, including winning back-to-back championships in 2003 (Matt Kenseth) and 2004 (Kurt Busch), and also at one point having a series-high five teams competing in NASCAR’s premier series, RFR has been nothing but a shell of itself the last decade.
Some might draw comparisons between SHR’s current struggles and those of RFR. But there’s one key difference: No matter what the Roush camp has tried, and no matter who it has placed behind the wheel, the overall results have remained meager.
That’s not the case with Stewart-Haas Racing. Even though he’s having one of his worse seasons to date, Harvick still remains a threat to win every time he takes the green flag. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he rallies back and puts together two, or maybe even three wins, between now and the end of the season.
This weekend will be very pivotal for Tony Stewart’s and Gene Haas’ team. SHR comes into this race staring at the wall: only five races remain to make the playoffs. Right now, only Harvick appears a lock to make the 16-driver playoff field.
As you read this, Briscoe is 100 points out of 16th place (currently held by Chris Buescher), Almirola is 136 points out of 16th, and Custer is 153 points out of the final playoff spot.
It’s going to take a miracle – or at the very least, a win – for Briscoe, Almirola or Custer to make the playoffs. Is it possible? Mathematically, yes.
Realistically, probably not.
But take heart, SHR fans. Like I said earlier, this is a cyclical sport. Sooner or later, SHR will return to prominence. Let’s just hope it’s sooner and not later.
Then again, maybe it will be enough for Stewart to grab his helmet and once again adhere to one of the philosophies he lived by in his Cup career: if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.