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Pedley: Loudon Could Be SHR’s Defining Weekend

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 18 2011

Ryan Newman's victory at New Hampshire produced points, momentum, hope and smiles. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The Second Day Lede:

It was just one weekend. But it was so much more. The kind of weekend Stewart-Haas Racing had at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the kind that can make an entire season. An entire era, even.

Tony Stewart was exaggerating hardly at all when, after the race, he said, “You couldn’t ask for a better weekend.”

It was certainly the kind of weekend everybody on that team has been searching for the past year and a half.

It was two years ago when Stewart-Haas looked like it was going to do in its first season of existence what it took Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush years to do – become a consistent threat every time it turned over an engine at a race track.

Stewart won four times and led in the point standings for three straight months. Both he and teammate Ryan Newman made the Chase. Between them, they had 20 top-five finishes.

Year Two – last year – comments about making it all look so easy as an owner were asked less frequently. The two drivers still won three races between them, Stewart made the Chase again, but precious little looked as easy as it did in 2009.

And this year, the leak got bigger. So big, that Bobby Hutchens, constantly referenced as a big reason for success during the 2009 season, was let go as competition director.

“It’s no secret we’ve been struggling this year,” Steward said Sunday. “It’s been one of the weirdest years as far as just weird things and bad luck happening to both of us.”

Bad luck, good luck, weird things – those are expressions used when tangible reasons for

Ryan Newman won for the first time since April of 2010. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

success and failure can’t be nailed down. They certainly don’t get much play in weekly team meetings nor are long-term plans built around them.

What is tangible is the kind of weekend Stewart-Haas had in Loudon.

Both teams were strong off the hauler. Both accomplished goals in practice. Newman won the pole and Stewart was second fastest in qualifying. On race day, they dominated in the first third of the race, stayed solid in the second, and finished the job in the third as Newman won and Stewart was second and closing.

The team now heads into the final seven chase to the Chase races with one playoff berth virtually assured (Newman is eighth in points and has a victory) and one looking like a very good bet (Stewart is tied for 10th with Denny Hamlin and he is Stewart).

But more significant than Chase numbers and victory numbers and top-five numbers posted in the first 19 weeks of the season, is the power which Stewart-Haas Racing showed at New Hampshire. It’s the kind of power which produces more power. The kind which electrifies entire organizations in racing.

If sustained through September, it is the type of power that could carry through November. And then, beyond.

It was just one weekend, but New Hampshire was just what Stewart, Newman and co-owner Gene Haas have been looking for for months.

“It was a perfect day for the organization for sure,” Stewart said. “This is a perfect way to go into an off weekend, for sure. Especially going into Indy, man, this is big for everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

And it helped head off Stewart’s least favorite question these days.

“By the way, yes, I’m still happy to be a car owner now, in case you had any questions about that,” he said in the New Hampshire media center Sunday evening.

Pressure cooked?

The theory behind the Chad Knaus-Steve Letarte decision to create starters and reserves among their pit crew personnel may be sound. Competition for jobs can be very healthy.

Jimmie Johnson's pit crew at work at New Hampshire. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

But it may also be counter productive. It may be producing too much pressure on the human element of the pitting process and perhaps, even, stop-slowing morale problems.

Jimmie Johnson, whose crew chief is Knaus, had another poor day in the pits at New Hampshire Sunday. Poor enough to where it may have cost him a victory.

After finishing fifth Sunday, Johnson vented to reporters. “I’m running out of patience,” with the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy pit crew. “I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they’re very talented guys, but we’re getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we’ve got to be right.”

It was pit stop problems late last season which prompted Knaus and Letarte, who was teammate Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at the time, to implement the system of making crew members audition, basically, for their jobs every week.

Johnson, of course, went on to win his fifth straight Cup championship. But, humans, like mechanical parts on cars, can only take so much stress before they start to misfire. That knowledge has to be built into decisions regarding engines and pit crews.

He’s no King

Seems a lot of fans are upset by comparing Kyle Busch to NASCAR legends like Richard Petty and David Pearson.

Petty and Pearson, critics fire, won 200 and 106 races respectively, in Cup (except for the

Kyle Busch is amassing numbers. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

one Nationwide win Pearson had). For Busch, his 100 victories have come across four NASCAR series.

That’s absolutely valid criticism.

But it also misses a key point.

Busch is just 26 years old. His victories have come in a time when the Nationwide Series was as competitive as Cup was in previous generations. And in a time when Cup is much, much more competitive than it was in previous generations. Any previous generation. And the Camping World Truck Series not only did not exist during the Petty/Peason eras, but right now, it, too, is very competitve – not to mention hazardous as it is loaded with young guns and displaced veteran drivers who are competing to prove points as much as to score points.

Dropping Busch’s name alongside those of Petty and Pearson should not be done for sakes of straight up comparisons at this point.

But it is proper to do so for purposes of historical reference.

This kid is good and has a lot of years left to drive his way into the position of true comparison worthiness.

He is a king

Then there’s the driving clinic Steve Wallace put on in the Nationwide Series race at New

Steve Wallace and Clint Bowyer wreck at Dover. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Erik J. Perel)

Hampshire on Saturday.

The kid is a freakin’ wrecking ball. He is King Squirrel. He took out a lot of good cars Saturday. Cars with shots to win the race.

He looks to be a hot head and please, dad, no more crap about his tactics of being a product of intense competitiveness and wanting to win so bad.

He should have been black-flagged in Loudon by NASCAR officials. He should be grounded by dad this week.

The report card:

Greg Biffle took to the track for the first time with crew chief Matt Puccia on his pit box. Their debut gets a: B-minus.

Biffle finished 18th. He ran top 20 most of the day and spent a lot of time in the top 10. He climbed as high as second under green and he had what appeared to be a fast car at points.

“I think it was way better,” Biffle said. “We had a pretty good race. You know, at the end there we were too short on gas and couldn’t do what the 39 and those guys did. We did what the cards were dealt to us. That is the kind of car we had. I think we did as well as we could with what we had today.”

Final thought…

On NFL player Golden Tate’s view that drivers are not athletes: You don’t get the true feel for the NFL until you’ve stood on the sidelines during game; you don’t get the true feel for racing until you experience hot laps on a crowded race track.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 18 2011
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