LONG POND — A few cut tires. A costly speeding penalty. A hard smash into the wall. What had briefly looked like a historic day for Stewart-Haas Racing vanished within just a few laps.
At a restart on lap 84, three SHR drivers — Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick — were running 1-2-3, respectively, in Sunday’s Pocono 400. Fellow teammate Danica Patrick was 12th at the time.
In the end, only Busch would hold on to a top finish, taking third. A welcome and much-needed improvement for Busch and his crew, but a frustrating finish for Stewart (13th), Harvick (14th) and Patrick (37th) at Pocono Raceway.
It all seemed to go sour in a matter of minutes.
Harvick’s left-front tire went down on lap 116, knocking him out of contention for first. Two laps later, Busch lost a bit of time when he overshot his pit stall. Stewart had a pit mishap of his own as the team co-owner was dinged for entering too fast on lap 119. He was leading at the time.
“One-hundred percent driver error,” Stewart said. “I don’t know how I got through the lights like I did, but I got to where I blew through all the lights and had no clue I was over it. I gave my guys grief last week with a sixth-place run that I thought should’ve been top-three, and then I threw it away this week.
“Great race. Just the driver screwed it up this week.”
Finally, Patrick had been challenging for a top-10 finish until a flat left-front of her own sent her into the wall coming out of turn 3 on lap 138, late in the race.
Busch, Stewart and Harvick still had time to rally from their issues and were able to improve their finishes.
For Busch, who had the least serious problem, it was easily his best day on the track since winning at Martinsville at the end of March.
“A nice, solid day,” said Busch, who qualified in second. “We had a top-five car, and we cashed in on a top-five finish. … We were able to hold our track position early. (Crew chief Daniel Knost) was smooth on what pit calls to make. Just solid execution — a nice turn of the page, so to speak.
“This is what we needed to start building that consistency. Now we just try to develop it week-in and week-out.”
Though it felt like a breakthrough day for Busch, there was some lingering disappointment for the rest of the team. And that’s largely because both Harvick and Stewart both had cars that could have taken the checkered flag.
“I thought there were five or six cars that were really equal,” said Brad Keselowski, who took second ahead of Busch. “The 4 (Harvick), the 14 (Stewart), the 41 (Busch), the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and us. I thought it was kind of a lottery draw as to whoever had the lead in the clean air as far as who was going to win it.”
Earnhardt, the race-winner, admitted in victory lane that he didn’t have the fastest car, taking the lead only when some trash got stuck on Keselowski’s grill, forcing him to drop off the pace in the final five laps to avoid overheating and wrecking his engine.
Because of their earlier issues, Stewart and Harvick were stuck back in traffic while Earnhardt was up front and able to take advantage of the situation.
Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief, specifically singled out Harvick as a major threat.
“If the 4 car has a better day on the racetrack today, I don’t know if we catch them,” Letarte said.
His driver concurred.
“The 4 car is so fast,” Earnhardt said. “If they really get the luck thing figured out and just put races together, they’re going to be tough.”
For Sunday, at least, that wasn’t much of a consolation. But moving forward, the entire Stewart-Haas stable is hoping for better fortunes as they look to earn spots in the Chase.
Harvick, who has two wins this season, is now 12th in points, followed by Stewart (18th), Busch (27th) and Patrick (28th).
“For each car number — the 4, the 14, the 10 (Patrick) and the 41 — this is the point in the season where each one starts to build its own identity,” Busch said. “And for my team, as young as we are, this is the type of finish that will help boost the confidence up.
“The meeting we had last week, we all had to look at one another and say, ‘Are you willing to step up, are you willing to put in the extra hours, are you willing to go the extra mile to make this happen?’ And everybody said yes. When you cash in on a top-five run after that, that really builds everybody’s self-esteem up. So I’m looking forward to it.”