Stewart-Haas is one of NASCAR’s elite organizations, just behind Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports among Sprint Cup teams. It has the championship favorite in Kevin Harvick and another driver in Kurt Busch capable of winning races and making the Chase.
Striking a manufacturer’s deal with SHR is a coup for Ford and should help put the company on a more level playing field with Chevy and Toyota. And in the long run, it might be great for Stewart-Haas. Eventually, SHR could become Ford’s flagship team, sharing the banner with Penske Racing and perhaps a rejuvenated Roush Fenway Racing.
With Chevrolet, SHR would always be behind Hendrick in the pecking order. Team co-owner Tony Stewart admits that it is time to get out from under Hendrick’s “shadow” and “coattails.”
But this might be a costly short-term move for Stewart-Haas, possibly even costing it another championship.
SHR has relied heavily on Hendrick Motorsports the past few years, getting engines and chassis from the Chevy team. And, in a sense, it has outrun Hendrick, winning two of the past five Cup championships to one for Hendrick. Harvick won the 2014 title and came close to winning it again last year.
Maybe that’s part of the reason for the switch. Maybe Hendrick was tired of getting beat by the team it provides support.
Stewart hinted as much on Wednesday when he said, “I feel like our relationship with Hendrick has been changing a little bit over the last year. The technical side of it has changed quite a bit going into this season, so we’ve kind of been working in this direction.”
But bailing on Chevy and Hendrick will almost certainly have short-term consequences.
It will take time for SHR to make the switch to Ford — time and resources that likely will detract from the focus on 2016. Stewart-Haas is planning to build its own chassis, and that is not an easy operation to set up. The switch will take a whole wave of new personnel that must be acclimated into the organization.
Stewart says he doesn’t believe the move will impact the 2016 season, but with the organization in such a major flux, the focus must shift more toward 2017 at some point, and that could have an adverse effect on 2016.
It will be much harder to prevent that from happening if Hendrick pulls back on its support, which also is likely to happen.
When drivers and teams switch allegiances and alliances, their current team almost always shuts them down in terms of team meetings and technical data they have access. Teams don’t want their drivers and crewmen jumping to rival teams and taking their secrets with them, so that flow of information starts to get stifled as the departure nears.
That’s likely to happen with Stewart-Haas, too. Why would Hendrick continue to give SHR access to all its technical data when the team could take that information to Ford next season?
And if that information flow is curbed, it could have a serious impact on SHR’s performance and ability to contend this season.
And that is bad news for Harvick, who once again is the championship favorite based on his performance the past two seasons.
If there is anyone who has a right to be unhappy with this deal, it’s Harvick. He had the two best seasons of his career since leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas, winning eight races, capturing his first Cup championship in 2014 and coming up one point short last year.
Harvick appears to be at his peak, but at age 40, how many years does he have left to win races and championships? He probably can’t afford to give away two seasons while Stewart-Haas regroups and transitions to Ford.
Kurt Busch is in a similar situation. Busch, 37, is young enough to make another championship run but he probably can’t afford to give away two or three years.
Clint Bowyer, who will replace Stewart next season, is 36 and has more time on his side, but he was no doubt planning on hitting the ground running in 2017. After years of driving Toyotas, he is with a Chevy team in 2016 to help his transition. The switch could impact that as SHR adapts to Ford engines and builds its own cars and chassis.
Stewart, who is missing part of his final season while recovering from injury, insists that the move won’t impact the team’s performance or effort in 2016.
“I don’t feel like it’s going to be a step backward,” he said. “We’re committed to Chevrolet this year and we’re committed to winning races and trying to contend for a championship again this year. They realize that. We’re still all-in this year with Chevrolet.”