Thursday, February 15, 2018

2018 team preview: Stewart-Haas Racing


STEWART-HAAS RACING


Manufacturer: Ford
Engines: Roush-Yates 
Drivers: Kevin Harvick, No. 4; Aric Almirola, No. 10; Clint Bowyer, No. 14; Kurt Busch, No. 41
Crew chiefs: Rodney Childers (Harvick), John Klausmeier (Almirola), Mike Bugarewicz (Bowyer), Billy Scott (Busch)
2017 standings: Harvick, third in final standings (reached Championship 4); Busch, 14th in final standings (eliminated in Round of 16); Bowyer, 18th in final standings; Almirola, 29th in final standings (for Richard Petty Motorsports); Danica Patrick piloted the No. 10 Ford to a 28th-place finish in the standings.
What’s new: The four-car organization has a driver change in the No. 10 car with Aric Almirola taking over the seat filled by Danica Patrick for the past five seasons. Almirola brings with him longtime sponsor Smithfield to the SHR fold. On the crew chief side of things, Tony Gibson is off the road, but still will work closely with the organization’s crew chiefs. John Klausmeier, formerly an engineer on the No. 41 team, will be Almirola’s crew chief. He already has a win to his credit as the crew chief for Busch’s 2016 Pocono win. Scott shifts over from the No. 10 pit box to work with 2004 champion Busch.
What to watch: Championship contender Kevin Harvick is the gold standard for this organization and on the prowl for title No. 2. Reigning Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch is looking to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Clint Bowyer is eager to get back to Victory Lane for the first time since 2012. Aric Almirola has plenty to prove with his new team. Stewart-Haas is celebrating its 10th season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Key question(s): Will Year 2 with Ford yield more consistency and speed for drivers other than Harvick? Can Harvick carry his late-season surge into 2018 and a run at a second title? How will Busch mesh with a new crew chief after clicking well with Gibson? Will Bowyer snap his winless drought and break out in his second year at SHR? Can Almirola make sizable gains with his new organization? Could this be the year SHR gets all four cars in the playoffs for the first time?

DRIVERS


Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford: For the third time in four years, Harvick reached the Championship 4 as he came on strong late in the season – specifically at the 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs. Wins at Sonoma and Texas left the 2014 champion with just two active tracks to win at in the Monster Energy Series – Pocono and Kentucky. And while SHR switched manufacturers to Ford, that move seemed to affect Harvick the least performance-wise of the entire SHR stable.
One change Harvick has his eye on is the five-person pit crew. “As you go through the early part of the season, I think you have to have some patience with pit road because you know how new, fresh and different it is through those first few races,” Harvick said. “But, as we get toward the end of the year, they should have it figured out, and it’ll probably just be the new norm.”
Aric Almirola, No. 10 Smithfield Ford: A back injury from a hard wreck at Kansas sidelined Almirola for seven races in the 2017 season. The Florida native finished the season and his Richard Petty Motorsports tenure strong with three top-10 finishes in his last six races. Of note as well: Almirola’s three top fives all came at restrictor-plate tracks, which is also where his one career win came in 2014 (at Daytona). The move to SHR gives Almirola a high degree of optimism.
“I want to be a part of the team and contribute to Stewart-Haas Racing and help put banners up inside the shop,” Almirola said of his high hopes for himself and his teammates in 2018. “I am a firm believer that high tide raises all ships. If I can go and do my part and do my job and contribute, then hopefully we will all run better together.”

Clint Bowyer, No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford: Bowyer’s first year at SHR saw the Kansas native post his highest number of top-five finishes (six) since 2013, his highest number of top-10 finishes (13) since 2014 and his best average finish (15.5) since 2013. Despite those gains, Bowyer missed the playoffs for the third time in four years and saw his winless streak extend to 185 races entering the start of the 2018 season.
“Every year is a make-or-break year,” Bowyer said of whether there is more pressure on him in 2018. “Doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your third year or your 12th year, it’s always that pressure and it’s always on. … I’ve always wanted to win and once you get a taste of that, there’s no going back from that.”
Kurt Busch, No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford: Busch’s elusive first restrictor-plate win came in dramatic fashion as he led the last lap to win the 2017 Daytona 500 in Monster Energy’s first full points-paying race as the entitlement sponsor. The 2004 champion made the playoffs for the fifth year in a row; however, he was eliminated in the Round of 16. His contract option was declined over the summer, but in December, SHR and Busch announced he would be back on a one-year deal for the 2018 season. And the veteran isn’t ready to ride into the sunset just yet.
“It is that drive and desire to win races still for me,” Busch said of what pushes him. “I want to win more. Last year was great with Daytona but we want to win more for Haas, Monster and Ford and everyone on the NASCAR side.”

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